New clients will often ask me if I offer agility classes, or other specialty training classes. I don’t offer them for a variety of reasons, including that I don’t have the staff or facility for it. But the primary reason is because the vast majority of dogs will never pursue canine activities such as agility or search and rescue work, but will spend their lives as family dogs. Moreover, if you can’t succeed at being the family dog, you will not be pursuing any extra curricular activities.
So what does it mean to be a family dog? I define it using this example:
I live in a small village in central Ohio. We have a local ice cream parlor called Whit’s and everyone in our village of ~2700 likes to walk to Whit’s on a summer evening to get ice cream and hang out on the wide sidewalk visiting with friends and neighbors. Kids play, bikes glide by, and dogs wait patiently for their puppy sundaes. Norman Rockwell would be proud!
In the midst of this idyllic scenario, owners are asking their dogs to walk to town (nicely, without pulling), and negotiate adults, kids, bikes, other dogs, fallen ice cream, trash cans, trees, tables and chairs on the sidewalk, aromas from the restaurants, outdoor seating for several restaurants, strollers, scooters, runners, etc., without misbehaving, and often without rewards for this amazing skill set.
The skills necessary for a family dog to succeed in public with his owners are amazing, but remarkably achievable, with positive reinforcement family dog training. In my classes and private lessons, I focus on a couple of objectives that are likely to give you the well mannered dog you desire. First and foremost, I focus on teaching your dog to check in with you. A dog who looks at you is more likely to follow instructions than a dog who is watching a squirrel, or focused on a child eating an ice cream cone. Think of it this way, if you have a teenager who is busy texting, how likely is she to hear what you are saying? I estimate you have a 2-3% chance of her hearing and responding correctly to your request while she is focused on the phone. If, however, she looks up from the phone, your chances for comprehension increase to 30-40%, if you’re lucky. Unfortunately, compliance hovers at a shaky 5 % at best.**
Therefore, I work with owners to develop several ways in which they can get their dogs to turn from distractions and check in. One thing I have written about is the class rule: If another dog barks, your dog gets a treat. This is an excellent way to teach your dog that checking in with you is a great idea. If the sound of another dog barking becomes a cue for your dog to look at you, then you will have a much better chance of preventing him from joining in the bark fest, and of keeping his attention when other distractions arise.
The other major objective is impulse control, which is, in essence, the heart of all training. Impulse control starts with sit. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of sit! This is why I use Dr. Sopia Yin’s Learn to Earn Program, wherein sit is equal to please. Anything your pup wants must be preceded by a sit. For example, in order for the dinner bowl to be put on the floor, your dog must be sitting. If he breaks the sit before the bowl is placed, then the bowl does get put down. It took my gluttonous Bernese Mountain dog about 3 attempts to put the bowl down for him to learn to hold his sit. Teaching your dog that sit is the key to all things wonderful, will also help him to learn that sit should be his default behavior. Then, when he is unsure of what is expected of him, he will likely sit and wait for further instructions.
Family dogs are not just the bread and butter of my business, they are the canines I love best. To see a family dog walking happily alongside his people, waiting patiently for his puppy sundae, or leaning contentedly against the leg of the person he adores, is pure joy for me, and the reason I have geared my training, blogging, and podcasting to helping families love living with dogs.
*See also: Love the dog you’re with
**I have no idea if these numbers concerning texting teenagers are accurate. They are my estimations and are used simply to illustrate the point that attention is essential to effective communication between individuals, whether you are the same or different species. I will leave it to the reader to define species in this context…
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