Steve Walsh | Q&A with a dog trainer
JEANETTE: We wanted to involve our listeners in today’s episode, so we’re doing a Q&A with dog trainer Steve Walsh from McCann Dogs. Welcome.
STEVE: Good morning. How are you? Well, good morning over here. I guess good afternoon over there?
JEANETTE: Yeah, it’s afternoon for us. You’ve had dogs for more than 30 years and taught classes for the last 15. Is that right?
STEVE: Yeah, at least. They’ve been a part of my life since I was a little guy. Always something that I’ve had a lot of fun with. Training was always the most important thing to me, and actually, it was the most fun, more so than anything else. [laughs]
JEANETTE: What kind of dogs have you had throughout the years?
STEVE: My first dog when I was a kid was a black standard poodle. She was the worst trained dog ever. [laughs]
JEANETTE: She taught you a lot, I guess.
STEVE: Yeah, she was a dog that when you walked out the front door, you had to try to close the door really fast so she wouldn’t run away. I think that probably started me on this idea of wanting to train dogs. Since then, I’ve had several Irish wolfhounds and whippets and border collies and things. I have two border collies right now and an Irish wolfhound currently in the house.
JEANETTE: You’ve been competing in different kinds of dog sports?
STEVE: Yeah, I’ve done a fair bit of lure coursing with the sighthounds and stuff, and now my main focus is agility. I’ve been lucky enough to represent Canada overseas at the European Open and national events around here as well. I’m very, very lucky to be able to do that.
JEANETTE: That’s good. So you have a lot of experience.
STEVE: Well, there’s always things to learn. [laughs] That’s the one thing I’ve learned. I never know enough, so I’m always trying to learn more.
JEANETTE: That’s good. Our listeners seem to be eager to learn more as well. We asked everyone on Instagram to send us their questions, and we got a lot, actually. There seems to be a lot of excited dogs out there because there were a bunch of questions similar to this first one “Do you have any tips on how to train your dog to not get too crazy and excited before a training or a race?”
STEVE: Dogs that are stimulated and excited, especially when it comes to training, are things that I love because I want a dog that’s eager and I want a dog that’s motivated to do the things that we want to do, whether it be agility or just some retrieving or some field trials or any of the sledding sports, things like that.
I will say before any of the sport stuff starts, though, I spend a lot of time with my younger dogs just near the environment. The reason I say near is if they’re right in it, we all know the events, especially the trials and events and races and things, are very high energy. If I can start to spend a little bit of time getting them comfortable in the area, doing basic things – having them sit, having them lie down, having them walk with me before I ever get to trialing, that can really help down the road.
Now, that doesn’t mean that older dogs can’t do that. We spend a lot of time trying to simulate a trial environment and trying to simulate that energy level because it is so different, and teach our dogs to listen. The more they can do that, the easier that becomes.
One thing I don’t want to ever do is try and get rid of that interest and excitement from the dogs. I really like it, but I really want to make sure that they can focus on listening to me in spite of that excitement. That’s a bit of a challenge to do, but like anything else, if I do it in a manner that my dog can be successful, that can help in those situations. That’s for sure. It’s a challenging thing to do, but it’s definitely worthwhile focusing on.
JEANETTE: Do you start when the dog is a puppy and you start from a distance and then gradually work your way closer?
STEVE: Yeah. Distance is a really big benefit. If you’re right next to something and let’s say the dog’s not even listening because you’re right next to the start line and there’s dogs screaming and barking and all sorts of things, going 40 or 50 feet away can really, really help to bring that puppy’s mind back in and allow it to listen.
I think about my dogs as having a bubble around them, and when they’re puppies, of course, that bubble is quite large. Anything that comes within that bubble really affects them and really distracts them. But the more adept they get at learning to listen with those distractions, the smaller that bubble gets and the more they can focus.
But it also starts with doing simple, basic behaviors, simple things that I want them to do, and really letting them know what to do instead of what not to do. This is one of our big training philosophies. I don’t want to spend a lot of time telling my dog what not to do, but I want to spend time telling them what to do and showing them how to do it to be successful.
If I can give you something that you know how to do when you’re in an excited mindset, it becomes easier for me to prevent the things that I don’t want to be happening. Basically, I replace behaviors that I don’t want with behaviors that I do. That’s a bit of a challenge, but that distance that you talked about is really helpful in doing so.
Just having a dog sit on a loose leash near that excitement – it might not happen 10 feet away, but at 50 feet away, it can be really, really successful. And then I would move slowly closer, building on that success.
JEANETTE: And if your dog is starting to fail, you just go one or two steps back again?
STEVE: Yeah, I move back. I move back to where they can be successful. Teaching a dog to offer me some focus when they’re excited is another thing that I really spend a lot of time doing. If I have an excited dog and they’re let’s say standing next to an agility ring, going nuts, if I move away, just encourage the dog to move away with me – I’m not going to tell them “leave it,” I’m not going to tell them “no” or anything negative – I’m just going to wait, and oftentimes in waiting, they will offer to look and offer a little bit of focus.
That’s a great way to build a little bit more of the idea in the dog’s mind that when you’re excited about things, you need to look at me for directions, not continue to focus on looking at that thing that is exciting to you. I want my dogs to feel free to look around the world. I don’t expect them to stare at me the whole time. But any time they do offer me some focus, and especially any time they offer me calm focus, then I start to offer a lot more reward. I simply build on that idea that yep, those exciting things are there, but I’m still here and all the good stuff comes from me.
JEANETTE: Do you prefer to reward with a toy or with treats?
STEVE: Every dog is different. People get so caught up on the thing, whether it’s the toy or the food. I want my dogs to think that I am a reward. All of me, whether it’s a piece of a kibble, whether it’s a toy, whether I’m running and playing with them, whether I’m simply talking to them, I want my dogs to think of me as a reward. All that stuff is just the icing on the cake, so to speak. The more that they think I’m fun, the more they’ll pay attention to me.
JEANETTE: Staying in a starting area can be quite challenging because in some sports you have a specific time. You know that “at this time, I’m going to run,” but in other sports it depends on what’s happening on the course. Sometimes you have to wait for a long time, sometimes a shorter waiting time. It can be quite hard to train this.
STEVE: Oh yeah, absolutely. You know with a lot of the sports that you do and a lot of the events you’ve been to with agility that sometimes the setups to go into the ring are very different from event to event. Sometimes you can be on the other side of the field and there’s a sound system where they call your name when you need to go. Other times you’re waiting in line, 30 or 40 or 50 dogs long. That’s where spending time away from those events, working on that ability to focus and that ability to settle, can really go a long way when you really need it to.
Of course, the other side of that is at those events, we’re also worked up. We’re also nervous or focused or a little bit more on edge, and that goes right to the dogs. They read that, as far as I’m concerned. So conditioning us both to be calm and collected can really make a big difference. Again, starting away from those events and working towards it.
The other thing that we really try and do, we often set up fake trials, or we play games in our training to put pressure on them, because pressure changes how we interact with the dogs. Pressure changes how the dogs react to it. We’ll make silly bets or silly games or play music really loud or do something else that simulates that environment to really have the dogs work through it.
Maybe it’s a challenge for if you don’t run clean, then you have to do 50 pushups, or something where there’s something on the line that we really have to work towards, and that makes it fun.
JEANETTE: When you are at competitions, would you use the chance to do – I like to call it false starts, to pretend that you’re preparing for a start, but then you don’t start so that the dog never knows when it’s an actual start and when it’s just a game?
STEVE: Yeah. I go on the adage “train like a trial.” At events, whether it be at your race starts where there’s times to warm up and then sit and wait and warm up and sit and wait, by all means I would do the same routine every single time, whether I’m starting or not so that the dog isn’t sure whether we are actually going to run or not, but they are tuned to the excitement level. That’s always a great idea.
JEANETTE: We got another question that’s a bit related to this, I would say. “My dog is perfect in training, but won’t listen to me at competitions. What can I do about this?”
STEVE: To me, that sounds like pretty much the same question. Slightly different result, though. It has more to do with the environment. One of the things that I hear from students all the time is they’re often surprised when their dog doesn’t follow something that they ask them to do.
The first thing they say is, “My dog knows this.” My answer to them is, no, your dog doesn’t know it in this second, in this environment. It may know it in your kitchen, it may know it in your yard, it may know it at the field or the place where you practice all the time, but in this particular environment, your dog doesn’t know it.
That really highlights the fact about how much environment plays a role in dogs’ learning and dogs’ ability to perform things. In that particular second, does the dog know it at that particular second in time? No. But it’s the stimulation that we talked about in the last question that’s overruling the dog’s understanding of what we’re asking them to do.
With that particular dog, personally, if it were my dog, I wouldn’t be doing any competitions at that particular point. I would spend a fair bit more time spending time around competitions without actually running – but again, still trying to build on a little bit more verbal control in those situations and a little bit more focus.
JEANETTE: I guess consistency is also quite important when it comes to these kinds of issues.
STEVE: Here’s the other thing. If I have a dog that’s already proven itself to be more distracted in those environments and I continue to be able to give it – we talked about rewards briefly; running agility for my dogs is a reward. But if my dog is rewarding itself by not listening and doing all the things it wants to do, it’s not doing anything for their ability to be successful and be more focused on me on a course if I continue to trial and continue to let those things happen. It’s not doing a whole lot for our relationship and our goals overall.
One of the things that we really try and do is take away our dog’s ability to rehearse things incorrectly. If my dog never does anything wrong because I’ve set it up that way, they don’t know how to do anything but be right.
Let’s say I went out with a young dog – I have an adolescent dog right now, and he listens really, really well, but there are still those times where he looks around and says, “Do I really want to listen to you or do I not?” That’s part of it. But one of the things I will make sure I do at that point is if I see any hesitation in him to respond – I’m never mad at him, but what I will do is take a step back and give him a little bit less freedom. Put a long line on him, do something where I have a direct connection to him to simply prevent him from making the mistake.
If I can prevent my dog from not listening to me at an event or a race or a trial or whatever, they never learn that they can. [laughs] Going back and setting him up for success can really, really help with that.
JEANETTE: We have another question that’s also kind of the same alley. “When my husky gets overexcited or wants to play, she starts biting. I’m desperate.”
JEANETTE: What would you do with this dog?
STEVE: Biting in and of itself to me is a hard fast rule in my house. I do not allow it. I want to qualify that, though. This dog sounds like it’s more redirecting its energy than anything else. If it was really biting, this person would be quite hurt. So it is a bratty behavior, but it’s another thing that I definitely do not let go.
This to me sounds like, again, a dog who’s a little bit overexcited, and because it can’t go and join in the fun or whatever, it has to be simply redirecting onto the leash and then usually onto the person and jumping up and all that type of thing.
First things first, I would move that dog away from that excitement in that particular second. With a dog like that, though, I would actually spend a little bit of time away from those exciting things, teaching a little bit different skill, and that skill is to settle.
It seems kind of silly, but I spend a lot of time with my dogs giving them permission to play and then teaching them to settle, and giving permission to play and teaching them to settle. I teach them to get high when I ask them to, but I also, in the process of doing that, teach a bit of an off switch or a bit of a settle command so that they understand that there’s value for both.
The way I do it is, again, away from all sorts of distracting things. They get permission. I call it playtime. “Okay, playtime.” We run around, we have fun, we are crazy. The dog’s leash is in my hand, and we’re simply goofing around.
Then I change my body posture and I will stand up, stand nice and tall, loose leash, and it’ll be “settle,” which is my yellow light, and then “sit,” which is red light. The point of doing that is if I can install that settle switch away from exciting things, when things are exciting, it has more value to the dog.
When I’m taking that young dog and playing with him away from things, I stand up tall, “settle,” “sit,” and the moment they sit, my praise is calm, my reward is calm, but it’s long and it’s drawn out. I spend a lot of time giving them lots of love and lots of praise and pets calmly. Not only am I teaching them to calm their bodies, but I’m also praising calm and keeping that calm. I don’t want to go crazy and let them be excited again; I really want to make a big deal for the calm behavior.
JEANETTE: If the dog can only sit for like 1 second and then it starts jumping around again, what would you do?
STEVE: There’s a great question. This starts with maybe a second or two. I will say, though, that if I ask my dog to sit and they get out of the sit, I will just place them back in the sit. Just make it happen. I’m not mad at them by any stretch of the imagination, but I build a lot of value for that calm praise.
If I have a dog that’s struggling with holding sit in a sit position, I might up my frequency of reward. I might mark it with my “Yes” and reward two or three or four or five times, building a little bit of duration with some food. That’s a great place to put food in your training. Then, again, I give my dogs a clear release word. My dogs learn that they’re not allowed to get up out of a sit or a down or a stand or whatever position until I release them with “okay.” Some people use “break” or “release.” There’s also other things.
But they learn that pretty darn quickly, and that gives me time to do both things. I start to build value for the settle and that stationary position, and then I bring them high again, and then I bring them low. I play that game back and forth of play and settle, and it really translates over to things like this.
Now, again, that’s something I would do away from all these exciting things because, again, I don’t want my dog rehearsing jumping and nipping and biting and doing all those things. That’s a big no-no-no in my house. [laughs]
My current wolfhound, who’s the smallest one I have had, she’s about 130 pounds, and I have a 6-year-old son. Nipping and biting and jumping is not allowed. It’s a rule. You do not do it. That means we are very clear with young dogs about having leashes on in the house and making sure we prevent those certain situations.
But back to this husky idea, spending time teaching a settle and teaching that command away from things translates into more exciting things. Again, it’s not going to instantly fix it, but it is going to help build that idea of an off switch.
Sometimes doing the opposite of what we’re trying to get dogs to do can really help. My one border collie loved to bark in her crate. Loved it. She would just bark in her crate because it sounded great. She was also the dog that, when you went over and asked her to be quiet, she would, but then you’d turn around and walk away and you’d get two steps away and she’d bark one more time. You know that feeling where she just wanted to get the last word in. [laughs]
I spent a lot of time teaching her to bark on command outside of her crate and then teaching her to be quiet outside of her crate, and building lots of value for that quiet command away from that crate situation. I removed the crate from the situation and changed the approach. I was teaching her to be excited and make noise, but then I was building much more value and higher value rewards for her being quiet.
In her particular case, she loved toys more than anything. But what it allowed me to do was install a quiet command and put a ton of value for it so that when I then took it and put it in the crate, that other environment, she understood what it meant. She understands there’s a lot of value for it, and she was able to generalize and put that in practice in her crate and fix the barking problem in the crate.
But it had nothing to do with the crate when I fixed it. It was away from the crate. [laughs] So changing the environment to get some success can really help.
JEANETTE: That leads us to the next question, actually, from @hikingbuddies: “Best tips to stop the dog from barking when he sees people?”
STEVE: What kind of barking? [laughs]
JEANETTE: Yeah, that’s a good question.
STEVE: There’s lots of different types of barking. There’s barking “Hi, how are you?”, there’s barking “I’m a little bit worried,” and there’s barking “If you come near me, I’ll bite you.” [laughs]
JEANETTE: So what kind of barking it is is actually important to find out how to solve it.
STEVE: Yeah, because if my dog is excited by people – let’s go back. First things first, my dog’s job when people are around is, unless we’re moving or walking by, if I want to stop – let’s say I want to talk to a neighbor or something – my dog’s job is to sit at my side. My young dogs. My old dogs can hang around. So their job is to come to my side and sit in what we call a control position or sit at my left-hand side.
That starts from a very early age. They get rewarded a lot for that position. The other thing is, I’m also pretty specific about what people do when they come in to greet the dogs. I don’t know how it is over there, but over here, everybody really thinks that they can just come and pet your dog. Not that any dogs are bad, but in my opinion, my dogs are ours. They’re not public property, and people shouldn’t be able to just rush up to a dog.
I very much look at my dog and say, “What’s your mindset? Are you able to have this person come and pet you or not?” I might stop the person maybe 5 or 10 feet back and just say, “Hey, hold on, please. Let me see if I can work my dog a little bit.” So that’s the first thing. I don’t let people come in to my dog all the time.
I also don’t want my dog thinking that every person they see is going to pet them, because that can create a bit of a problem. If I have a dog that is rehearsed that every person that they see, they get to (a) pull on the leash, (b) they get to pull on the leash to that person, and then (c) that person pets them and gives them that physical reward – what am I rewarding? I’m rewarding a dog that’s excited, that learns to pull on the leash to get what it wants.
JEANETTE: Good luck going to the city with that kind of dog.
STEVE: Exactly. People don’t realize that dogs are learning all the time, whether we are actually teaching them or not. We need to look at all the things that are happening.
Back to this barking dog, the question of what kind of barking really does come into play, as you know. Is it excited to see that person? If that’s the case, first things first, I am not going to let that person come in and pet the dog because then the dog also learns “if I bark, people will come and pet me.” [laughs]
I spend a fair bit more time teaching, again, an alternate behavior. Any time there’s people around, instead of jumping up on them, barking, pulling on the leash, your job is to sit at my side. As long as you know how to do that, then, once you’re capable of doing that in a quiet environment, then I might introduce people.
One of the very first things we teach our classes in all of our family dog obedience programs is that sit at your left-hand side. It goes back to formal obedience and dogs sitting nice and tight in heel positon. It gives the dogs a great home base.
We spend a lot of time proofing that by first of all teaching them how to hold that sit, rewarding them for holding the sit, then having people walk by while that dog holds the sit, and then maybe having people walk by and stand close while that dog holds the sit. The whole time they’re holding the sit, we’re coaching them, rewarding them, and doing all those things.
But it’s several weeks until we actually go in and pet the dogs. What we want our dogs to understand is that home base is the left-hand side, and that’s where everything should be when new people are around you. That takes care of a lot of the excitement. This to me sounds like an excited dog that wants to go and say hi to people because people come in and pet it all the time. [laughs]
Now, that’s what I would do to train it, but what I would do in the situation where it is barking is move away from that person. Say, “Hey, good to see you. I’ll talk to you later. Dog’s a little bit excited.” Again, making space, because that person at 25 or 30 meters away, that dog could most likely not be overexcited, but all of a sudden at 10 meters, that dog is pretty excited because that person is quite close. And then, of course, at 5 meters, that dog can’t listen at all because that distraction is too high and too close.
It goes back to the start line stuff we had talked about, or dogs nipping and biting and jumping for excitement. All those things are simple things of excitement, but need other behaviors. Instead of being mad at them for doing those things, let’s give them other behaviors to do to prevent them from doing it.
JEANETTE: That may be relevant for the next question as well, from @sleddogs: “How do you stop dogs from whining when they want attention?”
STEVE: Again, this in my class would be: what’s the situation and what’s the scenario? Is the dog tied up, they’re supposed to be relaxing and people go by, and the dogs are whining and wriggling, ready to go? Or is it you’re hooking up dogs, getting harnesses on, getting ready for a race? It would depend on the situation. There are, as you know, some dog breeds that tend to be more vocal than others.
JEANETTE: I have two, yeah.
STEVE: Yeah. I have to look at that a little bit and decide how much of a thing I want to make of it. Everybody has their own question. It sounds like this person is having it, I’m guessing, when they’re about to go run or they’re about to go out to do something. I might try a slightly different behavior in that situation, and that may be simply just to go and lie down. That may be alternate, easier behaviors.
But if in that second, I want my dog high because we are going to run, I might not make that big a deal about it. The only thing I would do is I would make sure if I’m getting something I don’t like – let’s say I’m getting really high whining – I definitely wouldn’t let anybody pet or reward them at that particular moment. I would ignore them; when I see a little bit more calm behavior, then I might go a little closer. If I get a little bit of stimulation or excitement at that point, then I might move a little further away.
I play the game and I only go closer to them when I see they’re more calm or hear that they’re calm, like they stop whining or something. You can play that game. We know when our dogs are excited. You know when your dog is sitting calmly or lying calmly versus when they’re trying so hard to hold position yet they’re vibrating in place.
When I have excitement in dogs like that, I very rarely will pet them or really praise them when they’re excited, especially if I’m working for calm behaviors. I’ll wait until I get that split second of settle, and then I can calmly praise them and reward them there. But if they don’t, I just move away. Think of it like you’re sliding in and out as the dog gets excited.
JEANETTE: Then we have another question that’s quite relevant to the time we’re in right now. “Because of quarantine, my dog is used to me being at home. How can I prepare him for when I have to go back to work and he suddenly needs to be alone again? I cannot leave my house, so I find it hard to prepare him.” That’s a good question.
STEVE: Yeah, it’s kind of a challenge right now. In our program, we have several hundred students each month that come through with their dogs, and we’ve had to switch a good majority of them because of what’s going on to online classes. This has actually been a pretty common question.
My biggest suggestion would be to try to maintain a bit of routine and separation. What I mean by that is I will do something for my dogs, and even my older dogs have crates that they use and I use them all the time – not that they’re not trustworthy in the house, but teaching my dogs to be comfortable in crates is a really, really big thing for me when we go to events or if I go away somewhere with the dogs or they have to go to the vet and stay there.
That to me is a really valuable tool, and that can help in these situations, because I will do a little routine with my dog where we get up, we have our normal breakfast, we go for our normal walk, we get home, and then when I go on my computer to start working, I will put the dog away in another room in their crate. I make it like I’m going to work.
JEANETTE: So you actually close the door between you and everything?
STEVE: Yeah, I absolutely do. Now, again, every dog is different, but if I have a dog that’s really reliant on me, I will start to make sure that I have that physical separation just so that we avoid that kind of thing. I will say that I think dogs are also really adaptable, and the reality of people going back to work is going to be harder on the people than it is on the dogs. [laughs]
JEANETTE: Probably true. [laughs]
STEVE: I think a lot of the dogs are going to be quite happy to get their sleeping time back. So I think overall, it will not be a bad thing. But if this person was worried about it, then yeah, I would use crates. I would put them in it, give them a bone, tell them to go lie down, and then they could go and do whatever they want to do for a few hours, and then come back, “Oh hi, I’m home, good to see you.” Pretend like you were gone.
JEANETTE: Sounds good. And then gradually extend the time you’re away?
STEVE: Yeah, exactly. Just build on that. But there has to be some sort of physical separation at that point. Again, I’m a big fan of dogs being comfortable in crates, and that’s the easiest way, of course, to create that separation. Put your dog in a crate. It’s one of the best things that you can ever teach a dog, in my opinion.
JEANETTE: We have another question. “My dog freaks out when he sees cars. He totally blocks me out, even if I have yummy treats. What to do?” And the owner points out this is not a herding breed, so that should not be the issue. People with herding breeds might know that that could be a herding problem.
STEVE: It’s not necessarily a herding problem in my mind. Certainly, it is pretty prevalent in the herding breeds, of course. But again, it all has to do with stimulation. Usually, with cars, it’s down to the motion. There’s the big woosh. I’d be willing to bet that this particular dog – again, just throwing it out there – if an excited dog ran by quickly or something else went by quickly, that would also spark its interest. It’s probably more the motion than anything else.
Again, I don’t know the setup for this dog in terms of what they have in terms of space. I like to spend time, again, teaching what I call a “leave it” command. “Leave it” has a very specific meaning. It means look away from what you’re looking at and check back in with me, look at me. It doesn’t mean stare at me.
The reason I qualify that is people want to do something that requires the dog to look at you the whole time, but we need to think about this from the dog’s perspective. That dog is either excited or worried or interested about whatever that thing is that’s going by really, really fast. I don’t want to create tension in the dog and anxiety in the dog because they feel like they have to look at me the whole time when what they really want to do is look at that thing.
What I want my dogs to do is, if you see something that’s really exciting, instead of reacting and running on the leash or pulling or anything like that, I want you to check in with me. I want you to look at me just for a second, and then I will give you direction. Because there may be times, if you’re herding, with our herding people, I need my dog to lie down, and then I will need to give him permission to move away or go to left side or whatever. Same thing in agility. If we’re on a start line, I know my dog is excited, but I want to make sure they know where they’re going.
So teaching them to check in with me is, again, a replacement behavior. How do I do that? Actually, we’ve got a couple of great videos on our YouTube channel that talk about that specifically.
It becomes a really, really fantastic command. Say I’m near a road and a car goes by. My dog sees the car coming, gets excited. I can tell them “leave it,” they look at me, I can praise them, I can reward them and have some fun. But like anything else, it doesn’t start at the road. I like to try and find fields or places where I can move away from the road to introduce cars and those sounds in a manner where both the dog and handler can be successful.
This is why I say it depends on where the person is, because I know sometimes you’re walking on a sidewalk and there’s no place to go but right there. [laughs]
JEANETTE: You’re kind of stuck sometimes.
STEVE: Yeah, exactly. So I would suggest to this particular person, find yourself a place where you can move away from the road and create some instance – again, the idea of a bubble around your dog, teaching them the idea that focusing on you is way more valuable than reacting to cars. The more they get that, the closer you can go to the road.
My ideal situation would be a field near a road that wasn’t too busy. I simply have my dog on leash, I let them look at a car, I say “leave it,” I put a little food on their nose, I turn them away and move away from whatever your marker is, reward, and have a little bit of fun.
A couple of things are really important. This person says that his or her dog blocks him out even if he has yummy treats. Really look into getting great treats. Any time I’m training with food, people say, “I tried the best treats I can.” All they did was go to the store and buy whatever treats. There are so many great treats around your house that you need to try. [laughs] Things like cheese or chicken wings or all sorts of stuff that are way more valuable than commercial treats. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is I would do this when the dog is hungry. Do it first thing in the morning before you give the dog breakfast. Take advantage of those times when your dog is more apt to be focused on food.
Then, again, as the dog gets better at it, I can move close to the road and have less food to lure. But because this is teaching a new command to this dog, I need to show the dog how to do it. This is where the use of food is pretty important. You asked me right off the bat, do I prefer using food or toys? Every dog is different, but when I’m teaching a dog something new, if I can use food, it allows me to control the distraction and keep the dog a little calmer. It works really, really well because I want to be able to give my dog a command and show them how to respond to it instead of expecting them to know how to respond to it.
So I would say “leave it,” I would use some food to turn them away, “Yay!,” praise them, move away, reward them several times. I would do that 10, 12, 14 times, let’s say 100 meters away. Then I might go to 75 meters away, and then 50 meters away, and see how the dog still responds. If they’re struggling, then go further away from it again.
But I want my dogs to feel free to look around the world. What I want them to be able to do is when I ask them to check back in with me, to do it pretty darn quickly. That really helps with things like cars because once my dog is comfortable with this, the moment I see them looking at a car when we’re walking down the street, “Hey, leave it, you’re fine.” Just very matter-of-fact.
Instead of tensing up waiting for them to go, I spent the time installing the behavior, and then I can be calm and direct with them, and it really helps transition them and they can generalize that really easily once they have a solid foundation. But it does take some repetition. People think that you can do this one or two times and the dog will understand it. No, most dogs don’t. [laughs] They might understand it in that second, in that place, but they don’t understand it everywhere in every part of their life. That’s where the consistency and repetition comes in.
JEANETTE: Perfect. That was the last question for now. I’ve learned a lot, and it seems like the same things go for most questions, actually.
STEVE: All of these questions fell into one little vein.
JEANETTE: Yeah, they did.
STEVE: They’re not uncommon things. One of the things that we do, we spend a lot of time in our program teaching dogs to listen to distraction. I’ll use our agility classes for an example. Our agility classes are pretty hard to get into because we have a really, really high expectation for verbal control.
We will have up to 10 dogs at a time in the arena, running at the same time. So dogs have to listen really, really well for safety. And let’s face it – for teaching agility, I don’t want a dog that’s not listening to me learning how to do agility.
Until they can do that, it’s not to their benefit to try and do a lot of these sports. We want to make sure we have that solid verbal control in all those situations before ever trying to do those fun things. That means that all these types of distractions we’ve talked about today are things that we spend a lot of time trying to work through before we ever get to the sports because that’s what’s going to help make it successful further down the road.
JEANETTE: There’s one question that we ask everybody on this podcast, and that is: if you had to do another sport with your dog, what would it be?
STEVE: That’s a good question. You know what? I think some of the pulling sports are piquing my interest now. Something with a bike or a sled. Actually, we had a terrible winter here, and I say terrible in that there was no snow at all. But I thought about getting a kicksled for the dogs. That’s probably the one I’d look at; I just don’t know if we have the weather for it here. [laughs]
I go biking with the dogs, and they just run free. But the sledding stuff is really piquing my interest a little bit more. Especially the more I talk to you guys.
JEANETTE: It’s good training as well.
JEANETTE: Cool. Thank you so much for joining us on this podcast.
STEVE: My pleasure.