Progress Over Perfection

Often people tend to focus on the end behaviour in dog training, which can be useful and can frequently help to focus your training. However, sometimes the end result is a long way off and it can be demoralising if you do not feel like you are achieving your goals.

It is vital that dog guardians do not get lost in the process of training, an easy way to avoid this is to track your training. We are looking for progress over perfection. If your dog can do a 10 second sit today what is a realistic goal for tomorrow, next week or next month? By writing down where you are currently it will help to focus your training schedule. Try to consider which areas are weaker and need more attention and which are solid but could be improved. My advice is always: what would improve yours and your dog’s life right now? Faster recall? More consistent loose lead walking? Then those are the behaviours you need to pay into.

Writing your progress down means you can track how far you have come in a set period of time. If you dog goes from a 10 second sit to a 20 second, that is a 100% improvement.

Have fun training.

Puppy Parent Blues

When people bring a puppy home, they image a perfect bundle of fluffy loveliness who fits into their family immediately. The reality is very different.  I joke that you have at least two crying on the floor episodes in the first six months, at which point most people say they have had two crying sessions in the last week!  It feels like puppies do not sleep, eat everything, chew everything and require massive amounts of love and attention but they are worth every second of energy.

People put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect. Everyone has well meaning advice for new puppy parents, that alone is exhausting. There is always a well-meaning person who got lucky with their dog believe their way is best. Each puppy and puppy parent are individuals. The common time for people give up on puppies is 8 months old. This is where they are no longer cute, the hormones have kicked in and a key development stage where they are trying out new behaviour patterns. It is a short development stage and they have not forgotten your training, they are just choosing to try other behaviours to see what is affective. It is not personal.

If you currently have a puppy, you are doing your best. You have to live with your puppy and no one else’s opinion matters. Keep going and try to be around people who match your dog training ethos.

Most importantly, have fun training.

Train One Minute at a Time

One of the most frequent pieces of advice I give to dog guardians is to train one minute at a time, for example: when boiling the kettle or between jobs. This probably sounds too short, but it is an effective way to train. Generally, dog guardians feel that they should set aside a period of time each day to train their dogs such as 30 minutes a day. In reality, this is too long for an average pet dog and can lead to frustration. Dogs learn best in short but frequent sessions. We are aiming for consistency rather than lumping behaviours together.

If you do slightly longer sessions such as 5 minutes, keep reviewing your dog each minute:

Are they getting tired, full, distracted?

Are you asking too much from your dog?

Sookie enjoying a chin scratch during training.

Do they understand what they are doing?

Are you having any success?

Are they improving?

Are you both having fun?

Flexibility is key. Short sessions allow you to continually assess your dog, their understanding and how to adapt the training to suit them. It also reduces the chance of frustration.

Have fun training.

Exit Strategy

Have you thought about how to end training sessions with your dog? What is your exit strategy?

Currently when you end your dog training what happens? Does your dog understand? Or are they confused and asking for more training because they are having fun?  Do they get frustrated? Perhaps they end the session by walking away because they are tired or overwhelmed? 

In an ideal world your dog would understand the start of session and the end of a session that way they know when to perform at their best and to focus fully on you.

There are lots of different ways to end a session, some people like to ask their dog to go onto a raised bed or mat to relax. Another idea is to go to a different area away from the training location and scatter feed. A play session and allowing your dog to keep the toy is another idea. The exit strategy should be a fun way to signal to your dog the session is over. You can use whatever strategy works for you. It is important that the dog and understands the training is over but not that this is a bad thing, we do not want them to feel like the food source is going away or the play is ending. 

So have a think about what exit strategy will work best for you and your dog. Have fun training.

Cats and Dogs at War Review

Hopefully you have already seen the 5Star Programme, ‘Cats and Dogs at War’ with Chirag Patel and Nanci Creedon. It was wonderful to watch a pet training programme that shows a realistic approach to behaviour modification and training rather than supposed instant fixes. The show was calm, relaxed and did not put any animals in stressful situations just for the purposes of filming for tv. During the consultations, home videos were used ensuring that the pets were in the best frame of mind for training but allowing the behaviourists to understand the situation.

Safety was the primary focus, the pets were kept safe with environmental barriers, fake animals and leads and harnesses were used where appropriate. All the animals were vet checked to ensure there were no underlying health issues that could impact their behaviour.

The focus was on improving the pet’s relationships and confidence. The training was broken into small manageable parts that could be linked together as the training progressed. The pet guardians were empowered to do the training and given realistic small goals over several weeks. The progress was monitored, the focus was on long term improvement and the plan was updated based on the pets’ progress. Fake training situations were set up so that everyone could practice the training and help the pets learn to make positive associations with the scenarios.

There were no aversives such as shouting “No!” or lead checks used during the show because behaviourists had the skills and knowledge to use more effective methods. They gave the pets opportunities to make good choices and always gave them an exit.

I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the episodes.

To watch the show on catch up see: Cats and Dogs at War – Channel 5

Surviving or Thriving?

Many dog guardians are simply surviving and getting through the day-to-day with their dog without thinking about what they want and need from their dog and the relationship. They are simply trying to minimise the difficulty of a particular behaviour such barking, instead of thinking what their ideal pet would look like and how to work towards improving areas they are struggling with. 

Often people fight day in day out, trying to do the same things instead of stopping and deciding how their life could be easier. It can be massively overwhelming to be a dog guardian. Everyone has an opinion and tells you things you should (or should not!) be doing.

It is your relationship and lifestyle with your dog.  Would you like your dog to stay on their bed while you cook? Would you like your dog to be on the sofa on their blanket? Would you like your dog to bark at the doorbell or not bark at the doorbell? The choice is yours. There are no right answers as long as your dog does not have any behavioural issues and you are working with their personality and needs. 

Frequently guardians battle through walks because they feel they should be walking their dog no matter what happens. They might have a dog who is lunging or barking on the lead, who is fearful or is just generally struggling. They still feel compelled to walk their dog every day or even twice a day. Guardians think they are doing the best thing by giving their dog a walk when actually the dog is finding the walk itself stressful. It might be kinder to give the dog a short break from walking and play some enrichment games with them and then reintroduce walks in a calm relaxed way. 

What behaviours does your dog do that you find frustrating? Do they jump up at the food bowl or beg at the table? All of these things can be improved. It just takes a little bit of focus and time for you and your dog to enjoy every day together.  You are not alone every guardian has something they would like to work on with their dog and learning never stops. How can you help your dog thrive?

Why should you put your dog on the lead?

If someone asks you to put your dog on the lead, it probably has nothing to with you or your dog. They are not trying to say that your dog is being unfriendly or out of control. Please do not take it personally. There are lots of reasons why they could be asking, such as:

  • They or their dog might be nervous
  • They or their dog might be injured/older/just had an operation/unwell
  • Their dog might have reached their stress threshold or just had another scary incident

When people ask other owners to put their dogs on leads, it is a request for support, and they will be grateful and relieved when you do what is being asked. They do not want your advice or opinion on their dog, they are working on the training and are in the best position to make decisions about their dog. Being judged by someone who has only seen a snapshot of their dog’s behaviour in a difficult situation is upsetting and demoralising for owners. It can really impact their confidence to have someone criticise their beloved pet who may be a rescue, have had a traumatic experience or be in pain. I spend a lot of my time trying to reassure owners that they are doing a great job and to keep going with the training. We never know what is happening in other people’s lives or pets, it is very easy to judge.

Lots of people try to give struggling owners advice, although the owners know people mean well, it often can be misinterpreted as criticism. Instead, perhaps just give a struggling owner some moral support, tell them how well they are doing or ask them how you can help. They might really appreciate your dog standing several feet away from their dog for a short period of time. If you are lucky enough to have a sociable dog who enjoys playing with other people and dogs, it is worth remembering that one random (or several) dog fight(s) or scary event(s) can turn the most delightful dog into a fearful, anxious dog.

We all love seeing dogs running around a field and if they can play with their friends, even better. When you see a dog that you do not know or have not met before it is always worth just checking your dog in or putting them on the lead before checking if they can play. The other dog owners will really appreciate your consideration and it will probably lead to nicer plays for your dog.  Everyone wins.

Lets all support each other so our dogs can have the best experiences and enjoy their walks.

Is your dog’s life interesting?

Our dogs provide us with unconditional love, are always happy to see us and listen to our problems, but do we give them enough of our time and attention? Is your dog’s life interesting? How often do we take the dog on the same walk, at the same time, perhaps even while on the phone and let them amuse themselves?  

Here some fun and easy activities that you could fit into your daily routine to make your dog’s life more interesting: 

Foraging – You can throw your dog’s food out in the garden and let them forage for it. Initially, you might have to put it in small piles and start to spread it out to teach them the game. Then you can start to put it in more and more difficult places around the garden.  

Food Toys – You can stuff their food into a Kong toy and let them work out how to get the food out. You could also pour hot water over the kibble, when it has cooled down and is soft, stuff it into the Kong and then freeze it so it is harder for your dog to get out. There are a variety of stuffable toys, you also could think about using toilet roll tubes or egg boxes and close the ends so that your dog has to get them open. In the hot weather you could put some of your dog’s kibble in a plastic container and fill with water and freeze. This will keep your dog cool and amused.

Learn to Earn – You can keep part of your dog’s meal aside to for training purposes so they have to earn their food. You can do basic training as part of your walk with dog and challenge your dog, you can you work towards a longer sit or an out of sight stay etc.

Find it – You can hide portions of your dog’s food around the house/garden and tell them to go ‘find’. Initially, you will need to let your dog see you hiding the food, then you could start to hide the food further away, then out of sight so they have to use their nose to find the food.    

Let your dog talk you for a walk – Where is your dog’s favourite place? Let your dog’s nose guide your walk and see where they take you.

Canicross – Have you tried running with your dog? Canicross is a where your dog runs ahead of you using a harness. It provides you and your dog with exercise, mental stimulation and helps to create a bond.

Agility – If your dog is over a year old and active, they may enjoy agility. Agility is where your dog jumps over hurdles and goes over obstacles such as the dog walk, a frame or through a tunnel. Agility is great for creating a bond with your dog and as well as keeping the focused.

Most importantly, have fun with your dogs.

Train When You Don’t Have To

Let’s face it, we are all busy and people are often trying to rush things and then get frustrated when it does not go right first time, every time. A typical example is getting your dog used to getting in the car, you are rushing for the school run or need to take your dog to the vet, in your head you are thinking this has to happen now! In reality, do you really need to take the dog on the school run? Can you walk to the vets or would it be better to pay the missed appointment fee for a non-urgent issue and rather than stressing your dog? When we start to rush and get stressed our behaviour changes and often make the dog more nervous. How many times have your rushed and it has gone wrong then when you are just going for a leisurely walk your dog hops into the car as if it is easy? They are reacting to our behaviour.

People often feel like they have to complete a behaviour sequence, when I have to ask why, they often do not have an answer other than it is what they would expect from their dog. This is when I ask: how have you trained the behaviour? Often this is confusing for people as they see the car as a nice thing for the dog because it means a nice long walk and why wouldn’t the dog like that? However, the dog might not understand this.

The trick to successful training, is to train when you don’t have too. Train your dog to get used to a muzzle, hop in and out the car, walk round a garden centre when you don’t need anything, go and sit outside a café with a takeaway cup so you can walk away if you need to. This way there is no pressure on either you or your dog and you can build up the behaviour as and when it suits you. When you are training it is best to work in small sessions that are successful without stressing your dog rather than one long session.