I’m pretty sure that a lot of puppies think that’s their name, because most of them hear those three words more often than any others. (Some puppies hear another interrupter. The hissing noise Cesar Milan uses is popular. Imagine thinking THAT was your name!) The problem is that while interrupters may prove effective in pausing unwanted behaviors, they only constitute an interruption. If we end at StopNoDon’t, the puppy will either resume their unacceptable behavior as soon as we turn our back on them, or will find something equally — or more — unacceptable to do.
After all, there are only three categories of object in the world — Food, Fun, or Boring. And you can’t categorize new objects until you’ve tried to eat them or destroy them. It’s the canine version of the scientific process.
So, how to handle these situations?
There are a few basic skills you need to build independently of the urgent situation. One is the Trade, aka Give. You teach the pup that if they let you have what they are investigating, they get yummy stuff back and maybe their original object as well.
Another is a Recall. For some puppies, the simple act of running toward someone is enough to banish all thoughts of other fun from their mind. (For others, it’s just an interrupter.)
Sit is another great skill to have. It’s hard to be naughty when you’re sitting.
Then there are two skills for the human. The first is remembering to Always Have Something Amazing In Your Possession. Whatever you have needs to match or exceed the value of whatever your puppy might find. For some dogs, that’s easy — FOOD wins every time. For others, it might be a ball, a tug toy, or a stuffie.
The other skill is more complicated and takes some practice. That is Being Able To See And Train What You Would Rather See Happen. That’s a hard one. It takes a lot of practice. For me, I have to close my eyes and SEE how I would rather have the scene look before I can train it. Sometimes we need Professional Help to make this happen.
A puppy example of this process would be chewing on everything. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake or too tired to pay attention. That’s when I find myself interrupting the chewing six or even eight times before I realize I have a training issue. I will hear the chewing, usually in another room, track it down, interrupt it, move the puppy, rinse, repeat. It’s generally not until the target of the chewing is either my gliding rocker or the handle on the LaZBoy recliner that I actually focus on the problem.
The first step is to contain the puppy. This usually means lugging ex-pens in from the garage to establish a containment unit to use when I don’t have two brain cells available for puppy monitoring. Into the ex-pens go appropriate chew toys. Then the puppy gets outfitted with a harness and leash, and I get to carry two or three chew objects with me wherever I go. The pup is either leashed to me or contained in the ex-pen. Any attempts to chew on inappropriate objects while leashed to me are interrupted by a recall, which is rewarded, and redirected by presenting an appropriate toy. Chewing an appropriate toy generates praise and intermittent treats (which gives me a chance to practice Trade For A Treat, as well). Refusal to chew an appropriate object or fixation on the furniture earns some ex-pen time. It may take six hours (Border Collie) or six months (Labrador), but the basic process is effective.
An adult dog example would be my boy Apollo. When he came to me, Apollo, a Golden Retriever, was pretty sure that the only way to get a human to notice him was to put part of the human’s body in constant contact with part of his mouth. While it was cute when he held my hand, I really couldn’t spend my life with his tongue stuck to my arm or leg when my hand was unavailable.
I really had to put my Trainer Thinking Cap on for this one. I hate having to do that.
I realized that the solution was to put something else in his mouth, so I went out on Amazon and bought literally a dozen small Outward Hound firehose toys. When they came, I distributed them liberally about the house and made sure I was always armed with at least one. As soon as the gaping maw opened, I put the firehouse toy in it. Then I pet Apollo. I stopped petting him unless he had a firehose (or other toy) in his mouth. After a few days, I started offering the toy, saying “get your toy,” and made SUCH a fuss over him when he took it. He was positively gleeful! It was a short step from putting the toy IN his mouth to tossing it on the floor in front of him, then to being able to just remind him to “get your toy!” I think it took about two weeks for him to start spontaneously bringing his toy when he wanted attention!
I realize that these are two pretty straightforward examples. There are a lot of more complicated scenarios that involve things like teaching your dog to run to their bed when you are woodworking in the garage or cooking dinner, or talking on the phone. Or teaching them to sit and wait while you get the package from FedEx at the door, or to run to you instead of chasing the cat.
With a little (a big?) bit of creativity — and maybe some coaching! — it can be done!-
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Dr. Brenda Mills and staff members