No Time to Train?

Cali brings a red bootIt’s a paradox: Training a dog takes a lifetime; but everyone has time to do it. How’s that?

Dogs, like humans, continue to learn throughout their lives. It is, in fact, possible to teach old dogs new tricks, and doing so enriches their lives (and yours).

At the same time, each training “session” can be only minutes long.

People often think training a dog takes hours a day and requires special skills and they just don’t have time for it. Instead, they spend hours cleaning up messes made by unschooled puppies or rearrange their schedules to walk their reactive dogs very early in the morning, hoping to avoid other dogs. Or, rather than spend 1 minute a day brushing their dogs’ teeth, they spend hundreds of dollars annually and accept the many risks associated with sedating their dogs for a professional cleaning.

Here’s the thing. You have the time — and the skills — to teach your dog the basic manners that will make your lives (yours, your dog’s, your family members’, and your guests’) better.

Young dogs can only handle a few minutes of training at a time. Even if you’re doing formal training, such as teaching tricks or putting behaviors like sit, lie down, or keeping 4 paws on the floor when greeting people, on cue, you can really only actively train for a few minutes at a time. Under 5 minutes for puppies; maybe 10-15 minutes for older dogs. But 5 minutes is fine for them, too. You can cover a lot of ground in 5 minutes.

Training doesn’t have to be formal, though. You’re teaching your dog how to behave all the time, whether you think about it or not. What makes it informal training is thinking about it — how would you like your dog to behave? And how do you teach her what you want? Then, build that into daily routines.

You feed your dog, right? (I hope so!) Teach your dog to stay out of the kitchen or in a specific spot, out of your way, while you prepare her meal by guiding her to the spot and saying, “Wait on your mat,” — or any cue words you want. As long as you use the same cue each time, you’re fine. The dog will learn to associate the place, and the words, with meal prep. The other piece of this equation is a “release” word that gives the dog permission to come over to her bowl once her meal is ready. It can be the same release word, like, “OK” that you use for other things, like going out the front door or greeting another dog or … just about anything you’d like your dog to wait for permission to do.

Your dog already knows how to sit and lie down, but putting those behaviors on cue control means that you can ask for them. All that means is teaching the dog to associate hearing a word, the cue, with doing the action. In other words, learning that sit means sit. One way to build this association is catching the dog doing the behavior and naming it. Another is using a lure, like a cookie, to induce the dog to sit (or lie down, etc.) while introducing the cue. Many trainers practice eliciting the behavior before using the cue to be sure that the dog learns to associate the right behavior with the cue and not, say, think that “sit” means “sniff my hand for a cookie.”

Here’s the daily routine part: You do stuff every day that your dog could and maybe should sit for: Put down a bowl of food, put on a leash for a walk, go out a door or down stairs, pet your dog, allow your dog to greet a visitor. Practice using the sit cue and waiting for the dog to sit before doing these things. The meal itself can be the reward for sitting nicely while you’re serving it; for other behaviors, you might reward with attention and petting or use very small treats as rewards. (Very small treats means maybe one Charlee Bear or piece of kibble; not a huge dog biscuit. The idea is to teach the dog, not make him obese!)

Some behaviors are more challenging. Teaching a dog to walk nicely on leash, for example, takes a long time. If your dog is very reactive to people, cats, or other dogs on walks, you may need to call in a trainer for assistance. But for basic manners, and even fun things, like shaking hands or bringing you things you’ve dropped, spending a few minutes a day teaching your dog will produce great results. Besides, it’s fun!

Jana Rocks

What’s the best present your dog ever brought you? Mine is the rock pictured here. Jana pulled it out of Lolo Creek at Fort Fizzle, one of our favorite spots to spend a hot summer afternoon. It joins this one:

Jana pulled it out of the same swimming hole last summer.

Does Jana know that hearts have a special meaning to humans? Do dogs use symbols to communicate the way humans do?

Those questions are not as farfetched as they might sound.

Jana loves hunting for rocks in the water, and she often pulls them out to collect onshore or to hand to me for safekeeping. She’s pretty selective about the ones she picks up.

She pokes her head under water, holding her breath as she looks for the perfect rock. Once she’s selected a rock, she lifts her head out and works the rock loose with her paws, then puts her head under water and grabs it. Some of them are huge for a 60-pound dog to carry, weighing a two  pounds or more. Sometimes, I throw one back. And she pulls it out again, often giving me a disgusted look in the process.

They are not all heart-shaped, of course. This stretch of river offers her a large selection of rocks in many sizes, shapes, and weights. Yet many of the rocks Jana chooses are triangular or have an elongated shape and rounded corners.

I can’t help wondering why Jana seems to prefer heart-shaped rocks. Is she sending an intentional message?

Dogs, like humans, regularly  use symbols to communicate with their human and canine friends. Many dogs, for example, bring a leash or guide their human to where the leash hangs to ask for a walk. A human donning a certain pair of shoes can trigger a wild dance of delight in other dogs. Play, aggression, and calming signals are part of universal canine-to-canine body language.

Dogs quickly learn to associate specific actions, such as sitting, coming, or lying down with humans’ spoken words, hand signals — and even printed words or pictures.

But dogs’ abilities go far beyond understanding simple concepts and associations. Studies in canine cognition labs around the world constantly expand our knowledge of how dogs understand high-level concepts.

Dogs have shown that they recognize people in photos and can differentiate between photos of dogs and other creatures. They even associate the sound of a growl with a photo of an  appropriate-sized dog who might make such a sound, looking at a photo of a large dog upon hearing a deep, big-dog growl, for example.

Dogs also learn to associate pictures with concepts. I’ve taught dogs to respond to flashcards printed with words or stick figure dogs showing specific behaviors  (sit, down, speak, etc.). And a researcher in Florida, Dr. Lauren Highfill, recently did a study where dogs learned to ask for their preferred reward by choosing the corresponding picture. They first learned to associate a food reward with one picture, a toy with another, etc. Dr. Highfill even had a “surprise” reward category that allowed dogs to ask for an unknown reward. Some dogs consistently chose to be surprised, while others always asked for their favorite.

So, back to the heart-shaped rocks. I haven’t intentionally taught Jana any specific association with hearts, but she has seen me collecting (much smaller) heart-shaped rocks on our walks together on many different beaches. Maybe she just knows that the symbol is, for whatever reason, meaningful to me.

Jana is very bright and perceptive. Even so, it’s a bit of a stretch to think that she has somehow picked up on the idea that, in human culture, the heart shape stands for an expression of love. It’s not as much of a stretch to think that a watchful dog knows what pleases her human partner and enjoys finding ways to do that. Whatever her reasons, the heart-shaped rocks are gifts from Jana that I will always treasure.