Monday, January 7, 2013

Playing Hard to Get. . . With Your Dog

I often tell people that the less you speak, the more your dog listens.  This is because, in general, the more you throw out cues at your dog the more they learn to ignore your voice; they hear you all the time and realize that many of the things you say mean nothing, they don't understand them, or you don't follow through with them.

This can also be taken into account with your physical presence with your dog.  When you are constantly following your dog, trying to give them attention, looking at them, petting, hugging, cooing at, trying to get them to behave, and talking to them, they will inevitably assume that you are always there and that they don't need to pay attention to YOU.  Let me be clear, I am not saying that you should not give your dog attention, I will be the first to say that I love petting, hugging, and talking to my dogs!  The key however is the times in which I choose to offer my attention.

*As an important note here before I go on, it is essential to understand that the majority of dogs don't distinguish between positive and negative attention.  There is no reason that they would really; often humans offer confusing displays of body language with voice tones and volume levels that vary between each individual and are used with vast variation depending on the situation.   If there are multiple people in the household the way you speak to each other can also confuse a dog, as well as desensitize them to your voice (this can happen while talking on the phone too). 
The importance of all of this is purely to break down our assumption that our dogs should somehow innately understand what we are saying, or the meaning of what we are saying.   For example, I recently had a client mention that his dog had done something to upset him, however he did not catch the dog in the disobedient act, and therefore couldn't correct her at that time as it would confuse her (at this time the dog was coming happily to greet him).  However, he was mad at the dog, so he said in a happy, high pitched voice, "You're such a bad dog and I'm so angry with you!"  The dog, of course interpreting his tone and not his words, happily wagged her tail and greeted the owner.  
Not only can our dogs become confused because of our tone of voice, but also because physically touching your dog will often be interpreted as a positive attention, even if that's not how it's intended.  For example, if a dog jumps on a person and that person pushes them off, the dog could interpret that as  positive attention.  In fact for many dogs, any attention is good attention.  You may be thinking that you are correcting your dog, when your dog is thinking "Yay!  My person is looking at me and touching me!  I got them to pay attention to me!"  Ultimately, this means that getting upset with your dog and giving them negative attention could be just as bad as giving them positive attention for bad behavior.  What will be clear to your dog however, is your lack of attention; ignoring them.

So, now back to the main point of this writing.  I encounter many people who have difficulty getting their dogs to focus and listen to them.  Observing their interactions together, the person is often following the dog, repeating their name, calling them, giving constant cues, petting, hugging, etc.  The dog is often looking for something else to do, or is distracted by more entertaining things in the environment.  You can see this in human relationships as well; a person who is overly pursuing a love interest can find themselves "putting-off" the focus of their attentions.  This of course is where the term "playing hard to get" comes from; a person purposely shows little (but some) effort towards their love interest and it can result in the interest instead pursuing them.  We can apply this same concept to our relationship with our dogs; we want them to focus on following us, pursuing our attention, instead of us pursuing theirs.

So, let's get down to the details of how to create this kind of relationship with our dogs.  A main point to consider is that you must be able to control the rewards your dog is obtaining from their environment; this could be smells, other people and dogs, animals to chase, toys to play with, etc.  In order for your dog to see you as the high value reward, they cannot be able to access other high value rewards away from you, at least not when you are trying to interact with your dog.  Starting with your dog on a leash, or in a small room with no distractions is best.  Then, anytime your dog focuses on you (the best focus is eye contact) you reward them, either with treats, your attention, or a game with toys (depending on what is most rewarding to your dog).  DO NOT call your dog to you, or ask them for any cues at this point; remain silent and still, and don't even look at your dog until your they bring their attention to you, and then at that moment "turn on" and have a party with them; it is as if you have all of a sudden come to life when your dog is focused on you.  Gradually build the amount of space and distractions that your dog has access to, and continue to reward them for bring their attention back to you (you may have to up the value of the reward as the distractions become harder).  This seems like a fairly simple process, but there are very common pit falls that may occur when not in a specific "training session".  However, there are a few key points that you can follow with your dog in order to help you while you are "playing hard to get".

*These methods are only intended for initially changing your relationship with your dog.  You will only keep this up until your dog can consistently pay attention to you and listen to your cues.
  • Do not call your dog to you if you think they are in a situation where they won't listen.
    • Of course safety is key; we are talking about safe, secure, situations here. 
    • Ex: If your dog is in the backyard sniffing intently, or watching a squirrel, that is not the time to try to call them back to you.  As long as they are safe (not getting into any trouble), just ignore them, or even walk inside, leaving them for a bit.
  • When you come home, do not fawn over your dog, a short hello will do.
    • This will help discourage jumping, as well as anxiety when you are gone.
  • Do not ask your dog for anything if they are not paying attention to you.
    • Inevitably, your dog will learn to ignore your cues if they are constantly hearing them with no result.
    • Wait until your dog is looking at you to ask them for something.
  • When you take your dog out to public places reward heavily for eye contact.
    • DO NOT ask for it, just wait for it.
    • Stand in one place holding the leash and do not let your dog pull you.
  • Make sure that you follow through with EVERYTHING you ask your dog to do.
    • Ex: If you ask for a "sit" and your dog doesn't respond, don't give up!  Limit your dogs freedom (on leash, body blocking, etc.), and follow through making sure that your dog completes the behavior.  Do not repeat yourself however, instead use a hand cue or body language to encourage your dog to complete the task.  When they do (no matter how long it takes) reward heavily!
  • Use environmental rewards.
    • Ex: When on a walk, if your dog wants to go and sniff something, do not let them drag you to it!  Wait for your dog to focus on you and then give them a release, or even a cue, for "go sniff" or "go check it out."  
    • This way your dog is asking you for permission to access rewards from the environment.
    • Another example would be if your dog wants to say hello to another dog or person; don't allow them to greet until they have "looked to you for permission," and then give them the cue to "say hello."
  • Don't follow your dog.
    • Allow your dog to choose to come to you instead.  
    • If they are pulling on the leash, stand still until they choose to come back to you, don't let them drag you where they want to go.

Always be safe! Only practice this methods in secure, fenced in locations, indoors, or on a leash.

And remember, be the most fun thing for your dog to engage with in the environment!

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