Trainer explains: Why NOW is the perfect time to train your dog.

Trainer explains: Why NOW is the perfect time to train your dog.

Posted by Pet Direct on 1st May 2021

One of the most common problems new pet parents struggle with is getting their young dog to focus, be calm and responsive around distractions. Particularly around other dogs and people. Samantha Jackson from Howlistic Help shares why now is a good time to train your puppy or dog.

Everyone has to keep to social distancing rules which includes keeping your dog in your bubble. This is an awesome opportunity to train your puppy or dog to listen to you around these everyday distractions. There are fewer distractions around. Less noise on the roads. People keep two metres away from you at all times. Sounds like an ideal, low distraction environment to do some training to me!

Teaching your puppy to be calm, confident and focus on you while out and about can be quite a challenging task.

Outside of lockdown people would normally be rushing towards your gorgeous puppy. Arms outstretched, without even asking before smothering your puppy in their love. Now that might sound cute and harmless. But there are a couple of very real problems with that.

No one asks for consent. When you want to approach or pet someone else's dog - first you must ask the owner, and then you must ask the dog.

How would you like it if a stranger rushed up to you and gave you a hug? Consent is such an important concept we need to teach. Ask the owner, don’t be offended if they say no. If they say yes, stand quietly and still and let the dog approach you. If she doesn't, that's ok too. Remember respecting that a dog's personal bubble is a very, very loving thing to do and the dog will thank you for it.

If a majority of people rush up to see your puppy she could learn that people always want to greet her with excitement - and she could start to get over excited every time she sees other people. Cute when she is tiny - probably annoying when she is fully grown and pulling your arm off trying to meet a stranger across the road.

Or she could become nervous and fearful of other people because they have rushed up and touched her without consent so many times. She might become scared, shy or defensive. Because everyone is respecting the social distancing rules you can focus on training your puppy and your puppy can focus on you much easier as well! Take this time to teach her what you want her to do around distractions.

If you would like your puppy to grow up to be calm, confident and responsive to you whilst out and about. This is the perfect time to start training. For example, practise walking your puppy on leash, reward her with a treat for following you, walking near you. Practise inside the house and around the garden before practising out and about.

Here is a fun and simple real life skill to teach:

Auto Sit - Teach your dog to automatically sit when you stop walking and stand still.

You will need:

  • Your puppy on leash, lots of yummy treats, clicker or verbal marker. Start inside at home in a quiet room with little to no distractions.
  • Start by standing still (with your feet clearly together) pause for a second, ask your puppy to sit.
  • The precise moment her bottom touches the floor. Mark that moment by saying “YES” (or CLICK your clicker) and feed her a treat.
  • Immediately feed her the treat directly to her mouth so she is still in the sit position.

Say “ok” before slowly walking on.

  • Stop walking, stand both feet clearly together,
  • Pause for a second then ask your puppy to sit.
  • Mark the exact moment her bottom touches the floor with a “YES” (or CLICK) and treat.
  • Say “Ok” - this is your release cue, letting your pup know that she is allowed to move out of the sit position and a cue that you are going to keep walking.

Rinse and repeat.

Your puppy will quickly catch on that your feet stand clearly together before you ask her to sit, each time. She will anticipate that and start sitting when you stop walking and stand with your feet together... Awesome! Now you can start fading the word “sit” and just stop with your feet clearly together, mark (click or yes!) and reward her for sitting when you stand still by immediately feeding her a treat.

You have taught your puppy an “Auto Sit” - sit when I stand still (with feet clearly together). This is a helpful real life skill that you can now practise out and about. If your puppy doesn’t get it right, simply go back a step. Go back to standing still, pausing then asking “Sit” and reward her for planting her butt on the ground with a tasty treat.

Don’t forget to use your release word “Ok” (you can choose any word you like, some other common release words are Free or Release, just be consistent) to let your pup know it's ok to get out of the sit and that you are going to keep walking.

This is a handy skill to teach any puppy or dog. If your dog learns to sit when you are standing still, you will find it a lot easier to train her around distractions. For example, you go for a walk and spot a friend across the road. You stop walking, standing with your feet clearly together as you’ve practised with your puppy. Your puppy automatically sits next to you. You reinforce that with a treat. Now you are able to talk to your friend while your puppy sits next to you. You can continue to reward your pup with treats for staying in the sit while you talk to your friend. Make sure to use your release cue “ok” to let your dog know when you are going to keep walking. Sounds simple enough right? This sort of training can be the difference between your friends being excited to come visit you and your puppy or your friends being not so keen on getting jumped all over. Puppies are so cute but they grow up fast to be big and strong dogs, not many people like being jumped all over. Set your puppy up for an awesome social life by teaching them calm default behaviors like an auto sit.

Practise at home and then take it out and about, in low distraction environments (like right now!) and slowly increase distractions as your pup grows in confidence.

The Training Game: Engage / Disengage

Now is the perfect time to teach your puppy or dog to be calm and responsive to you around other dogs.

Because we have to keep our dogs inside our bubbles, it is the perfect time to train your dog to be calm and listen to you around other dogs.

This training game is great for teaching your dog to be calm and responsive around distractions or triggers (something that makes her bark or stressed) I will be writing about other dogs in this blog post, but you can use the same game and technique to work with other distractions / triggers e.g. bicycles

You will need:

  • A variety of high value treats (that means a bunch of treats that your dog really loves and will really work for.)
  • Your dog on leash with a plain collar or harness (no choke, prong, slip collars etc)
  • Clicker (or verbal marker “Yes” )

Level 1 Engage

Start somewhere your dog feels comfortable. At a distance she is able to see the other dogs without barking or reacting. Be quiet and still so she notices the other dog (or other distraction / trigger) on her own.

At the exact moment your dog ENGAGES by looking at another dog CLICK or say YES and when your dog turns her head around, immediately feed her a treat. If she doesn’t turn around to get the treat, or reacts toward the other dog (e.g. barking) move further away to start again at an easier distance.

The goal is to have 3 - 5 successful repetitions in a row at the same distance before moving on to Level 2. A successful repetition is when your dog turns back to you immediately after the click (or verbal marker “yes”) to eat a treat.

Level 2 Disengage

Again, stand quietly and let your dog notice the other dog (or other trigger) but this time wait 1- 5 seconds to see if she will offer to look away from the dog. If your dog is fixating on the other dog for longer than 5 seconds go back to level 1.

At the exact moment your dog DISENGAGES by looking away from the other dog CLICK (or mark by saying “YES”) and immediately feed her a treat. If your dog reacts (e.g. barking or lunging) or is not turning back to you after the click, move further away to start again at an easier distance.

The goal is to succeed with at least 3 - 5 repetitions in a row before moving 1 - 5 steps closer to the other dog (or other trigger). A successful repetition is when your dog disengages (looks away) from the other dog comfortably on her own.

Each time you play the Engage / Disengage game, play for 1-5 mins and then take a break - let your dog sniff the ground is a good way to have a break. If your dog is keen and eager you can repeat this game / pattern.

Infographic Engage-Disengage Game

Now that you have been practising these calm default behaviours with your dog. She walks nicely on leash because you have reinforced her for walking close to you. She is able to automatically sit quietly while you stand still. She is able to look away from distractions comfortably. Now you can practise some basic obedience out and about.

Start at a distance that your dog is comfortable with. She is able to relax, and take treats from you. If your dog is not taking treats she might be too distracted or stressed. Move away from distractions and find your own spot to start off. Whatever you have taught your pup at home, practise these simple skills out and about. Don’t start right next to other people or other dogs. Stay in your bubble and use high value food rewards (that means treats your dogs LOOOVES) to positively reinforce your pup listening to you. Don’t expect perfection right away. In fact, lower your criteria and reward her for the effort she is making. We are not looking for a perfect sit or a perfect down, but we are reinforcing her for responding in a different or distracting environment.

Keep it simple and fun. Your little practise sessions can be as short as 2 minutes, this keeps things sweet and successful for your puppy.

If your dog or you are getting stressed, put some distance between you and whatever is causing the stress. Tell your dog “lets go” and toss some treats in the grass for her to find. Letting your dog sniff is one of the easiest ways to help her feel more relaxed in a different environment. So when in doubt. Let them sniff.

The fact that we all have to keep to our bubbles for now. Keeping our dogs on leash and not running off to play with each other is potentially a pawesome opportunity to train your dog to be calm, confident and responsive to you, around real life distractions like other people and dogs.

Take advantage of this unique time and help set your puppy or new dog, up for a lifetime of success with you.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, frustrated or are keen for some guidance don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at Howlistic Help or find a professional dog trainer in your area here. If your dog has bitten or caused injury to a person or another animal, first consult with a certified positive reinforcement trainer or board-certified veterinary behaviorist to make sure you are implementing the necessary safety precautions.

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