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Tales from the Couch Series
By Lee Livingood
So don’t do that.
What does this very old joke have to do with dog training? More than you’d imagine.
I rarely get a call from a prospective student or client telling me what a perfect angel his dog is. Almost everyone has some problem or problems they want to fix. And often the most common sense fix, at least for the short term, is, “If it hurts when you do that, don’t do that.”
We have no trouble being creative about this approach when we deal with our young children or grandchildren, but we rarely even consider it when we have a similar issue with our hounds. If a toddler continually gets into the trash, we simply put the trash out of reach or put the toddler where he no longer has access to it. In other words, we manage the child’s environment until the child is old enough to understand that he shouldn’t get into the trash, or until we’ve taught him what to play with instead. And we routinely use management tools like play pens and baby gates and car seats as part of our repertoire.
In dog training, the key to preventing or fixing a problem is often as simple as keeping your hound out of trouble while you teach him what he needs to know. It’s about understanding what makes our hounds tick and why a certain behavior is so rewarding. Sometimes it’s learning to give a little so your hound has the opportunity simply to be a dog and do what dogs do. But it all comes down to managing his environment so he doesn’t get the opportunity to do it incorrectly. Just as important, it’s about paying attention to him so you can catch him and reward him for doing it correctly.
Management Is Everything
Every time your hound successfully raids the trash, steals food from the counter, pulls on the leash, or mugs Auntie Gracie when she arrives, he gets rewarded. Every time he’s rewarded the behavior gets stronger. In other words, practice makes perfect.
Dogs are hunters; that makes them gamblers by nature. No predator wins every time he goes hunting, but he continues to hunt. Your hound may not get paid with a juicy steak each time he surfs the counter, but if he got paid even once you can bet he’ll look there again. If the slot machine pays off, he’ll keep throwing quarters in. Unlike some other breeds, Greyhounds don’t tend to be compulsive gamblers so they often respond quickly when rewards are removed and new behaviors are trained.
Stop him from practicing while you train what you can reinforce. Manage him so he can’t practice stuff you don’t like. If you don’t want him to get really good at a bad behavior, don’t let him keep practicing. If he’s jumping on Auntie Gracie, use a leash or other management tools like confinement to keep him from getting to her. If he pulls on the leash, use a head halter on walks where you can’t work on training. Remove the reward or remove his access to it. Whatever the problem, think about how you can manage his environment to keep him from getting any more practice (rewards).
Make sure you have truly identified what is rewarding the behavior. This isn’t always as obvious as it seems.
Pay attention to him so you can catch him doing good things as well as bad. Find or train behaviors that can be rewarded and aren’t compatible with the behavior you are trying to stop.
Use leashes, crates, tethers, gates, head collars such as the Premier Gentle Leader, or other management tools. Be creative, but be gentle. Think management not punishment. But don’t let either management or punishment become a substitute for training
Be realistic in your expectations. Don’t expect perfection and give a little where you can. Dogs function at about the same level as a young child. If you wouldn’t expect something of a toddler, don’t expect it from your dog. The reverse is also true: If a behavior is unacceptable from even a young child, why tolerate it from your dog?
So if it hurts when you do that, Don’t do that!
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Author Bio – Lee Livingood is the author of the critically acclaimed, Maxwell award winning book, Retired Racing Greyhounds for Dummies. It is viewed by many adoption groups as the “Bible” for Greyhound adopters. Lee is a certified dog behavior consultant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and is a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She has been helping adoption groups and adopters with training and behavior advice since 1996 and wrote a regular column for CG Magazine called “Tales From the Couch”, some that are reprinted here with Lee’s permission.
You may call Lee Livingood at 1.717.215.4198. Her work week is Thursday through Monday (except Sunday evening). She is not available on Tuesdays or Wednesdays or on Sunday evenings after 5:00 PM.