I recently received a question from a reader:
I just adopted a year-old Pit Bull mix who is super sweet, but who developed bad habits from her foster family. She’s hard to control on walks, too. Where do I start!?
— Lisa B.
I don’t know you personally, but I do know this: You are one of my favorite types of humans! I suspect you’re a beautiful soul, inside and out. I’m not just sucking up. I can determine that just by the fact that you opened your home to a rescued dog and now care enough about her to seek out training. Please accept this grateful online Dogster hug from me on behalf of shelters and rescue groups everywhere.
Now that we have that taken care of, you ask a great question, proving your above-average intelligence! First, forget about what she may have learned in the foster home, because lamenting wastes valuable emotional energy and time. Look only at the dog in front of you and, more importantly, the behaviors displayed by her.
Instead of thinking about what you don’t want her to do (jumping on people, pulling on the leash, etc.), start thinking in terms of what you DO want her to do, and then set about in a positive manner guiding her to the right choices. Like all dogs, she doesn’t know what humans expect of her until she is guided. She isn’t being dominant or stupid or stubborn. She is being a dog, and she continues to do behaviors that work for her. The win-win in dog-human relationships is when we can motivate the dog to do what we prefer them to do, mostly because we pay the rent, drive to the pet store with our handy thumbs, purchase the dog chow, and clean up the poop. If dogs did all of that stuff for us, then we’d be the ones walked on leash, no doubt.
Based on working with dog owners for a long time, I find that there are three basic skills dogs need to make life pleasant for their two-legged companions. Here are the three golden tickets to dog-human peace:
Certain dogs seemingly go deaf if their environment changes, such as hearing just you fine in the living room to OMG SQUIRREL and sudden deafness in the backyard. There are many ways to increase a dog’s focus on you, the taller, two-legged one with those handy thumbs and the bigger brain. I start by using a clicker, and I click every time my dog looks into my eyes. I don’t say anything – I just go about my daily routine, and when Rover makes contact with me, I click!
And then I treat with a truly motivational training treat — for example, not their kibble and not boring dry biscuits. I am talking meat here, Lisa. REAL meat. As soon as I’m getting lots of visual check-ins, I move on to calling the dog’s name once. As the dog is turning to me, I click and treat for his head turning in my direction. I start inside the boring and quiet house and work my way up to the smelly outside world full of squirrels. Remember: If you click something you like, always follow up in short order with a training treat. Later you can fade the treat by randomizing dispensing.
We used to say we wanted dogs to heel – walk just beside our heel. That’s a BORING and unrealistic way to walk your dog out in the real world. On the other hand, it’s frustrating to come back from a walk with a sore arm and eyeballs tired from being nearly yanked from your face by the dog whiplashing you at the end of the leash.
Here’s one of my favorite ways to create an enjoyable walk for dog and woman alike. I put the dog in a quality harness, and I have good training treats. What kind, Lisa? Let’s say it together: MEAT. I throw a tasty morsel behind me, and the dog goes to sniff and slurp it down.
While the dog is doing that, I’ve taken a few steps forward. When Rover returns to my side, I click because that’s where I’d like him to be on walks. The training treat for that click is again thrown behind me. I repeat this as we walk. The more often he is reinforced for being beside you, the more often he will chose to be right there by your leg. Also, please be kind and allow your dog some quality sniffing time on his walk. They go through life nose first, dontcha know.
What is a default behavior? It’s a natural behavior that the dog has figured out gets him what he wants. Please don’t stand in front of your dog and repeat “sit-sit-sit-sit-sit-sit-sit-sit-SIT.” I know you wouldn’t do such a thing, Lisa. You are too bright and too kind. Instead, whenever you catch your dog sitting, click and treat, or mark it with a “YES!” and treat. You can, of course, cue him to sit and reinforce that, but I like dogs to learn to offer me the default behavior. You get what you reinforce, so please reinforce “sit-sit-sit-sit-sit-sit-good-boy-sit” after the dog offers it to you. Also, dogs can’t jump on people or do other naughty things while sitting.
I hope this gives you a good place from which to begin your new life with your precious dog. Because you cared enough to rescue her and then look into positive reinforcement training for her, I have no doubts about your successful and charmed future with this lucky dog.
Read more by Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, on Dogster:
About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.