Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Puppy Play

This post got rather long, so here's a quick summary of my thoughts -

1.  You are always training with every interaction and situation - either reinforcing or introducing new behaviors (good or bad).
2.  If I have to say the command more than once, I am teaching my dog to ignore me.
3.  When establishing a behavior, a logical progression of situations sets the dog up for success - with a few "test" situations thrown in.
4.  There is a way to give the dog what he needs developmentally, while still preserving the integrity of your training program.
5.  Not everyone is a dog person and its rude to impose my dog on them if my dog doesn't have proper manners - proper manners includes respect of personal space and not demanding attention.
6.  The freedom/off duty time cannot be micromanaged to the point where it is no longer a mental break for the dog. 
7.  How "far" you train the off-leash behavior will depend on your future plans with the dog. 

Ready for the entire discourse?

One of the common questions I get from other people that watch me interact with Tess on a daily basis is - do you ever just let her off leash and play?

This is usually while we are in the home room, which is full of my classmates sitting on couches, heating up lunches, with 3-4 dogs of various sizes and training levels running around.

A thing to keep in mind is that you are ALWAYS training.  When you are walking from the car and you are too busy because you'll be late to class - you are training.  When you only have 10 minutes to take the dog outside to pee and they refuse to play the crate game or put their nose in the gentle leader - you are training.  When you let your dog ignore you in a room full of paper, engage in questionable behavior (ie - excited puppy behavior that non-dog people may be uncomfortable with), ignores their name, and doesn't come when called.  Even then - you are training.

Tess's biggest training issues are related to her distractability and fixation on other dogs, and movement, and her tendency to lick people's noses in greeting.  Tess is bold and independent.  She's well socialized.  I'm not worried about her approprately interacting with other dogs and people on a socialization level - I'm worried about manners and training.

If I put her into a situation where there are a lot of other dogs and people (especially people sitting down on the ground and on couches) off leash, I am setting her up for failure - I know that she will ignore her name and recall, because we can't function in a situation 1/2 distracting.  Until I get good behavior in a less distracting situations, it's unfair of me to expect it in in a high arousal situation - and instead of reinforcing our training, I'll be reinforcing a habit of ignoring me in a high distraction situation.  Even worse - the home room situation would also reinforce naughty behaviors in addition to crime of ignoring me!  The opportunity to jump on people and furniture and knock over chairs and clear the coffee table (and couch) in a single leap!  Don't laugh - I speak from personal experience!

Don't worry!  I know that play and movement and being able to just "be a puppy" is an important part of a quality life!  I regularly let her off leash to play - but I control the situation for success.
  • She gets to play with Reed (Golden Retriever housemate) in the back yard off leash.  I have a pocket full of treats and she regularly gets treats for checking in with me, and for looking at me when I call her name (I then treat and immediately release her to play again).
  • She gets to play with new and familiar dogs off leash inside, if it isn't more than 2-3 dogs and no more than 3 or 4 people in the room.
  • She gets to play with 1 other dog off leash outside in an unfenced area (and drags a very light long line).
  • Every 1-2 weeks I take her to a fenced dog park during an "off time" (usually not more than 5-6 dogs) to play off leash.  I use this as my "check" - this is an extremely high arousal situation - and compare how she is improving over time.  How well does she listen to her name and recalls?  Does she check in?  Is she continuing to greet dogs and people appropriately off leash?  Because she still has a tendency to ignore me in a dog park situation, we don't do this really often - it takes me ~24 hours to rebuild the name game and recall to where it was pre-dog park.  I try REALLY hard not to do recalls or call her name at the park unless I'm almost positive that she was ready to do it on her own - so it lessens my chances of her ignoring me.  Remember that you are always training?  Repeated commands is training the dog that is does not have to respond the first time you say something - Tess ignoring me or me having to repeat a command is more likely to happen at a dog park, regardless of my best efforts, so I can't do it too often - have to rebuild the relationship between trips.  Make sense?  
For the first 3 situations (the dog park is too stimulating) Tess plays a few quick games to establish the value of the relationship before being released to play (and so she understands that although she isn't directly interacting with me during dog play most of the time - this REALLY REWARDING thing still comes from me - the source of all things fabulous in her life).  A few RZ games, nose touches, a few bows and then OFF SHE GOES!!!!!!  And let me tell you - she is BEAUTIFUL at full speed.  :) 

The dog park is important because it's my transition or bridge to high arousal situations (like the homeroom at school).  It's hard for her to be too naughty at the dog park, other than ignoring me.  She's never engaged in a behavior that I had to stop.

When she starts responding to me consistently in the dog park, then she'll be ready for off-leash in a busy homeroom - but not before then.

Am I being picky?  Absolutely.  I have the luxury of being able to keep Tess with me almost 24/7, thus I have lots of opportunities to physical and mentally stimulate her throughout the day without resorting to letting her off leash to run energy off in a situation not of my choosing.

I'm constantly walking the line between these 2 concepts -
1.  Giving her freedom that she has rightly learned and the reward of being "off duty"
2.  Being mindful of what she is learning and what I'm reinforcing while she's enjoying that freedom while not restricting or micromanaging that freedom/off duty time to the point she becomes resentful or anxious.

With your relationship with your dog, you may care more or less about your dogs responsiveness and control - I think a lot of the the decision is based on your future plans with your dog. 

I have big plans for this girl, all of which require her to develop self-control and focus her attention on me in very high distracting situations.  Agility and other performance competitions require a dog that can work through crowds, new places, and unfamiliar situations without losing focus.  I'm also considering designating her as my service dog, which requires many of the same skills. 

A digression - Another thing I consider when letting my dog off leash is that not everyone around me is a dog person.  *I* wasn't a dog person before getting Tess, and even now I don't enjoy unfamiliar dogs (or familiar dogs....) invading my personal space, demanding my attention, and slobbering on me.  My dog is my responsibility - which means that until my dog can run up to a seated person and politely sit a respectful distance away while seeking attention (and not demand attention if ignored), my dog has no business being off leash in an area with other people.  Period.  It is unfair of me to impose my dog on other people in the area.  I'm willing to "test" her behavior in a dog park because I figure there are mostly dog people there.  

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