LIFE SKILLS FOR DOGS
Obedience training teaches your dog specific skills and to respond to specific cues from you. This is important, but your dog should also have general life skills that will help him get along well in human society. We don’t want to have to tell our dog what to do every minute of the day. There is a difference between an obedient dog (that obeys cues) and a well-behaved dog (that acts appropriately without being told). Ideally, we would have both!
Well-behaved dogs are confident and that comes from socialization. Socialization means having good encounters with all the things in their world and learning that those things are not dangerous or scary. This includes all kinds of people, other animals, places, objects, sights, sounds, activities. The easiest time to do this is before your puppy is 3-4 months of age, when their prime socialization window is still open. The older they get, the harder it is to keep them from being afraid. Be sure to keep the intensity of new experiences low: children should be quiet and gentle, noises not too loud, new objects at a comfortable distance, other animals calm and friendly. Good experiences build confidence.
Once your puppy has built confidence, if something frightening accidentally happens, he will be able to recover more easily. Being able to recover is what resilience is about. Now he can handle rowdy kids, excited dogs, new situations. Good socialization helps, but there can also be a genetic component. Always let your dog experience things at his own pace. Make sure he is not overwhelmed or traumatized by an experience, but don’t overprotect him either. If something was a little scary, try again at a lower intensity or farther distance. If something surprises or slightly startles your puppy, make sure it is followed by something good, like a treat or toy, and your calm, happy voice letting him know it is no big deal.
Related to resilience is a sense of having some control over your life (very important for humans, too!) If a dog is never allowed to explore the world and make choices, or is trained with punishment, he comes to believe he has little control over his life and that can lead to “learned helplessness”. In humans this causes depression and it can cause dogs to “shut down”. Good trainers allow dogs to make choices (this is how clicker training works), but first set things up so their choices are very likely to be good ones.
Of course dogs need rules, just like children do. Consistency (sticking to the rules) is important if you want your dog to learn. The rules are up to you, but examples might be: Dogs are only allowed on the couch in the family room, but no other furniture. Dogs may not be given food from the table during meals, but scraps may be used for training or put in his dish. Dogs never get petted if they jump on people. Dogs may not leap out of the car until released. Toys don’t get thrown if a dog is barking.
Don’t expect your dog to just know your rules, you have to teach them. Until he understands, you must set things up so it’s hard for him to make a mistake. Focus on teaching the “right” behavior, rather than correcting the “wrong” behavior. There are many errors your dog can make, but usually only one right way. For example, instead of yelling at your dog every time he puts his paws on kitchen counters or tables, teach him to lie on his mat with a chewtoy. Instead of jumping on visitors, or biting their shoes, or pawing at them, or barking — sit in front of them to be petted.
Always reinforce your dog when he chooses to do a behavior you like, especially in a situation where he might have made a mistake. Catch him being good! After you have spent time heavily reinforcing those behaviors you like, they will become habits and they will become what your dog chooses to do on his own. Once your dog is learning to make good choices, allow him as much freedom as possible. This helps give him that sense of control that is so important to mental health.
Frustration Tolerance and Patience
Most dogs are naturally impulsive and must learn they can’t do whatever they want, or have whatever they want, whenever they want it. An adult dog with no frustration tolerance can be difficult to live with, even dangerous. Some things that teach this:
• Staying with their mom and littermates until at least 8 weeks of age where there is competition at the milk bar and the weaning process.
• Sitting to greet people before getting attention or petting. Jumping, barking, and pawing should get a puppy absolutely nothing.
• Doggie Zen exercises will teach dogs that trying to grab things doesn’t work, but being polite might get you something.
• Asking for your dog’s attention around interesting things teaches a dog to wait and ask for your permission to go check out interesting things.
• Giving your dog some of his food in a Kong or other food puzzle toy helps teach frustration tolerance, focus and tenacity.
• A dog must learn he is not always the center of the universe. Attention is not always available and he must sometimes be alone and entertain himself. Use crates, ex-pens, baby gates and chewtoys.
• When a dog is on leash, he must learn to deal with the disappointment of not being able to go anywhere he wants. On the other hand, if he walks nicely without pulling, he might be allowed to go where he wants.
Impulse Control and Calm
Obedience skills help to begin teaching self control (sit, down, stay, doggie zen), but if you always have to tell your dog to do these things, you are controlling the dog, he is not controlling himself. Many things should become default behaviors — things your dog just does automatically: sit to greet people, keep your teeth off human skin when playing with toys, don’t grab things from plates or hands, wait to be invited to go out a door or come out of a crate, sit to get your leash put on, stand while you get your feet wiped, be still for grooming, walk politely on leash without cues. All these behaviors can be taught and rewarded, then when they begin to be good habits, your dog will start to offer them in context without being told. Reward good behavior when it happens, whether you asked for it or not.
The same goes for calm behavior. Teaching “go to mat” is a good start, but remember to always reinforce your dog when he is being calm on his own. Remember that a quivering down-stay is not the same as being relaxed. Reward relaxed.
Make sure your dog is getting appropriate exercise and mental stimulation so he can be successful at being calm. If your dog loves to chase things (and most do), keep him under control until he has an excellent recall. Teach him that chasing toys (that you throw) can be just as fun as chasing squirrels that always escape. Combine self control exercises (down, stay, come) with exciting play. Avoid offering treats, toys or attention when your dog is acting wild and crazy as that will reinforce that behavior. For a calm dog, sometimes you have to reinforce “doing nothing”.