Creating well behaved monsters

happy black & white dog sitting on snow covered ground looking upYears ago I suggested my sister let her two min pins off leash as we headed off for a walk in the woods near her home. Ooops, my bad. I’d been walking dogs off leash since I was kid. It never occurred to me that someone’s dogs would not just go for a short walkabout on their own, but would not come home at all! I’ve learned a lot since then.

When I was younger and would head off for a walk through the woods and cranberry bogs in southern Massachusetts my mother would remind me to ‘take the dog’. This was when boogey men were rare and a mother could relax knowing that the family’s fat fox terrier was protecting her child.

Nowadays when I head out for walks with dogs, my own or other people’s pets I often carry a variety of kibble, dried liver, chunks of cheese or chicken. I’ve never found it to be a burden. Anytime a dog looks at me, comes to me, or stops and waits for me the chances are good they’ll receive a treat. I do most of my ‘training’ on these dog walks.

Because of my lifestyle and expectations for my dogs I don’t worry about getting most behaviors ‘under stimulus control’. This means-a dog only performs a behavior when asked for it. You don’t want a dog going into the obedience ring deciding to ‘sit’ or ‘down’ to take a load off when they feel like it, but in my life, it doesn’t matter. I want my dogs to; look at me, trot back to me, walk jauntily by my side, wait for me, without having to ask for those behaviors. And they do. A lot. That’s the monster part.

Most days on our walks I want to think grand thoughts, talk to myself, to come up with ideas for blog posts, but there they are, a dog or two or three walking along next to me in position for a nice loose leash, were they to have one on. To them it’s a game and they want to play it. They wander off and come racing back and look at me as though we were long lost friends. I have to shoo them away, go on, explore, sniff, be distracted! Surely there’s a chipmunk out there that needs harassing.

It’s my own damn fault and I know it. If you consistently reward a dog for a behavior the behavior gets stronger. If you reward a behavior intermittently, it becomes less likely to go away. Do the former for awhile and then switch to the later and you’ve really gone and done it. I don’t always give my dogs food when they look at me or come back to me. Sometimes I tell them what absolutely amazing dogs they are or nod and smile and give them a wave to get back to the business of sniffing out wildlife poop, and preferably NOT rolling in it.

I guess I have to live with the check-in monsters I’ve created. As for my sister’s dogs- we found them, eventually.

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20 comments so far

  1. Mark Shaw on

    Did your sister’s Min Pins make it home?

    • fearfuldogs on

      They did. With some help. They ended up at a neighbor’s house who had ‘met’ them in the past when they’d gone on walkabout and knew who to call. Lucky thing too, my brother-in-law would have killed me for suggesting they go off leash.

  2. Terry Dyck on

    I enjoyed your post. I too take treats with me on my woods walks. It WORKS! 🙂 Terry Dyck

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s such a simple thing and overlooked by many people who have dogs who could be taught recalls easily.

  3. Ci Da on

    My dog is just like this – sometimes I don’t want her watching me so intently when we’re out in the woods for her benefit. I try to send her off after a squirrel but often that results in a more excited, barking dog waiting for me to give her something to do.

    I’ve created this monster myself. As far as monsters go, there are worse ones out there.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s true. We shouldn’t complain 😉

  4. Jean Cappello on

    I just read your book. My Lily’s corner is on a blanket on the couch. I have new hope after reading your book.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Hope is good. Add generous amounts of patience too.

  5. Rachel on

    Ha ha – yes! My dog runs around, sniffs, and explores more and more on his own as his confidence grows (and as I increasingly let him off leash in interesting areas because the intensity of his startle-flight response has been decreasing with DS/CC). And I definitely always bring cookies and always reward for him checking back with me or for walking at my side (I should probably move to intermittent reinforcement at this point).

    • Debbie on

      Or you could carry some extra special treats that only get handed out when you ask for a recall. Auto check ins get a reward, lesser value treat and/or praise, and requested recalls get super treats. The release to go run is also rewarding to many dogs. So I guess I always am rewarding in some way or another.

      Debbie Jacobs Fearfuldogs.com

  6. dogdaz on

    Enjoyed your post. Wish it was as simple as chicken in my pocket with one of mine. She won’t even look at me. But someday, I can hope. Thanks

    • fearfuldogs on

      So much depends on what the dog finds rewarding and not pushing the dog past their abilities so they can figure out how to get what they value. To get eye contact with a fearful dog we first need to create a system which helps the dog understand why they are being rewarded. I use a clicker or marker word. All I do is click and toss the dog a treat. The treat gets tossed under conditions which the dog is able/willing to eat treats. Once the dog begins to connect that a click (or verbal marker) means a treat is going to be tossed, then I can begin to click for other behaviors. I might start by clicking for a dog turning their head toward me, or for a brief fleeting glance. With any dog, but especially fearful dogs, we want to tap into their brain’s reward system and get them figuring out how to get us to give them a treat. I don’t set the bar too high with a dog new to the system, in some cases any movement is worth a reward. This gets the dog doing something, anything. That alone is often a huge step for a fearful dog. Once they start moving I can begin to be more selective about what behavior is going to get them a reward. Finding a trainer familiar with how to do this is helpful. Most pet owners and novice trainers don’t reward often enough to build the behaviors we want.

      • dogdaz on

        Thanks – I am sure that I don’t click enough. But always keep trying.

  7. Julie on

    Sounds like our walks this. Tranquille and delightful. As long as we don’t meet anyone.

  8. Lizzie on

    Yes I can echo that, ‘as long as we don’t meet anyone’ on walks! But I created my monster indoors.

    Gracie was so afraid in the beginning that I used whatever would work just to get her moving away from her place in the corner. Food was the only motivation for her, so I encouraged her to come into the kitchen when we were around the table, eating. BIG mistake, now I can’t get rid of her LOL!
    But seriously some monsters are easier to live with than others 🙂

  9. Dana on

    Great post. My dog went through a period of running away from me if he wasn’t ready to go home or to be put in the car. It started to become a real problem. I spent many hours doing recall training. Now he will put himself in the car before we are ready to leave. I can take him on walks now without the stress of worrying about him running away. Treats definitely helped in the training as well as calling his name so enthusiastically that he was curious about my excitement.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Nice! Dogs can be influenced by our enthusiasm for things.

  10. kinkypoodles on

    all we three do is play this game off leash in parks: while hiking i use a chuck-it and launch a jw squeaky ball deep in the brush or woods. then vanna and kel run around like mad and retrieve it. in the summer we do this in long island sound or the harbors. we play in the parks every day before and after work.
    in the week since i’ve been reading your blog and committing to only positive reinforcement Vanna’s retrieving has improved SO much. Her recall was always good, well, ok. Retrieving can not be taught by punishment. i (different kind of monster) tried. Dogs aren’t machines.
    when they’re in the parks they couldn’t care a whit about food though. it’s all about the ball or deer (again the monster part, but they have never in their approximately five years caught ANYTHING,)

    • fearfuldogs on

      R+ can create very strong reliable behaviors. Congratulations for giving it a try. Play is a very powerful reinforcer.


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