A generation or two ago, Mom stayed in the home and taught the dog good manners while the rest of the family went off to work or to school. Today, many family canines are latchkey dogs, left all day to their own devices. Family members are often too busy or too tired to spend the time necessary to properly train the dog when they get home. As a result, the unexercised, untrained puppy becomes a Wild Child. While spay and neuter is increasingly becoming the socially acceptable thing to do and many animal shelters are seeing fewer litters of unwanted puppies as a result, shelter kennels are filled with out-of- control adolescent Wild Child dogs whose humans have given up on them.
Clicks For Calm Whether you have a baby dog with normal puppy energy or an obstreperous teenager who needs good manners lessons, clicker training can be an effective and gentle way to convince a dog to be calm. No yelling, no physical punishment; just clicks and treats for any pause in the action.
The biggest challenge with a “hyper” dog is that the instant you try to praise or reward, she’s bouncing off the walls again. It’s nearly impossible to deliver the treat to the excitable dog while she’s still calm. By the time you get the treat to her mouth she’s doing her Wild Child act again. She may well perceive the treat as a reward for her jumping jacks!
Timing and consistency are key to successful training. If a reward is given more than a second or two beyond the desired behavior, the dog has lost the connection, and believes she is being rewarded for whatever she is doing now. However, once a dog has learned the connection between the click! and a pending reward, your timing can be impeccable; an instant of calm elicits a click!, and the treat can arrive several seconds later. An added advantage of the clicker is that most dogs, when they hear the click, pause in anticipation of the coming morsel, drawing relatively calm behavior out even longer.
The “All Is Calm” Program Here’s how to turn your Wild Child into a Serene Sally, following a simple program that helps her get rid of excess energy, prevents her from being rewarded for out-of-control behavior, and consistently rewards her for being calm.
1. Rest For the Weary: The first element in an “All Is Calm” program is to provide your dog with lots of exercise. Wise dog owners know that a tired dog is a well- behaved dog. Often when your dog’s at her worst, she’s simply chock-full of energy bursting to find an escape. Tug-o-war on your pants leg, donuts around the dining room table, and record high-jumps over the back of the sofa are just some of her outlets for pent-up energy. Schedule at least one tongue-dragging sessions of chase-the-ball per day. Climb to the top of a hill or staircase and throw the ball down so she has to keep climbing back up to return it to you. Set up an obstacle course with lots of things to climb and jump over. Be careful not to send her into heat stroke, but definitely play until she is pooped. Keep your exercise program breed-appropriate – an athletic Border Collie will needs lots more physical challenges than an English Bulldog.
Don’t think a walk around the block will do it. A walk on leash, even a long one, is nothing but an exercise hors d’ouerve for a young dog. You’re tired when you get home from the walk, but your dog is just getting warmed up! If no one in the family has time to give your dog adequate exercise, arrange for a pet sitter to come by a couple of times a day and wear her out, or take her to doggie daycare as often as possible. Eight hours of romping with other dogs will take the wind out of her sails!
2. Manage, Manage, Manage: All living things repeat behaviors that are rewarding to them. You need to reward your dog for good behavior, and prevent her from being rewarded for unwelcome ones. If your high-energy dog grabs forbidden objects and races around the house, it’s probably because she’s learned this triggers a rewarding game of “Chase The Dog!”
The management answer is to keep forbidden objects out of her reach, and avoid falling into her trap of chasing her when she does grab something. Instead, walk to your cupboard, take out a tasty treat, and offer to trade for the object. Then put it out of her reach.
Another piece of the management solution is physically controlling your dog’s behavior through the use of leashes, pens, crates, tethers, doors and baby gates.
3. Quick With the Click!: Along with a foundation of exercise and management, you can begin an effective clicker-training program. Don’t procrastinate – you can start training on Day One of your All is Calm program. Start by “charging the clicker” (known in behavior circles as “conditioning the reward marker”). Begin with the clicker in your pocket, to avoid startling her with the sharp sound. Click! the clicker, feed your dog a treat. Click! and treat. Click! and treat. As she begins to associate the sound with the treat, bring it out of your pocket and click it in a more natural position at your side or your waist.
Your dog doesn’t have to do anything special to get the click! and treat, as long as she isn’t doing something undesirable, like jumping on you or chewing the corner of the coffee table. Most dogs catch on pretty quickly that click! means a treat is coming. When your dog’s ears perk and her eyes brighten at the sound of the click!, she’s getting it. Now you can use your charged clicker for training. The goal of clicker training is to get your dog to understand that she can make the click! happen by offering certain behaviors – in this case, calm. At first, you can’t wait for long, leisurely stretches of calm behavior to click; you won’t get them. Begin by giving your dog a click! and treat just because all four feet are on the floor at the same instant. Be quick! You want her to understand the behavior she got rewarded for was pausing with all four feet on the floor, so your timing must be sharp – the click! needs to happen the instant all four feet are down.
If you click! her with four-on-the-floor several times in a row you’ll see her start to stand still deliberately, in order to make the clicker go off. Light Bulb!! A door has opened in her brain, and you can now see her thinking. This, to me, is one of the most exciting moments in dog training – when the dog realizes that she can control the clicker! A whole new world of communication has opened to her. You have a very powerful tool in your little plastic clicker box. You can use it to reinforce any behavior you want, any time it happens, and your dog will quickly start repeating that behavior for you.
How does “pausing briefly on all four feet” translate into a calm dog? Gradually. You can “shape” the pause into longer and longer periods of stillness, by extending the time you wait, in milliseconds at first, before you click! and treat.
If you err and she starts jumping around again, just wait. There will be another pause eventually that you can click! As she gets better at being calm for longer and longer periods you’ll want to reinforce more randomly – sometimes for shorter pauses, sometimes longer. If you just keep making it harder and harder – longer and longer – she’ll get frustrated and quit playing the game.
Each training session should be relatively short, to avoid frustration for both of you, but you can do several in a day. You’ll have the most success, at least at first, if you practice clicking calm right after one of her exercise sessions when she’s tired anyway. As she gets the idea that “calm” is a very rewardable behavior, it will work even when she has more energy.
When your dog will be still for several seconds at a time, add the verbal cue of your choice – something like “Easy…” that you’ll eventually be able to use to cue her into calmness. Over time you can phase out the click! and treat for calm behavior and use petting and praise as rewards instead of food. Keep your voice and body language calm and soothing to reflect and support her growing calmness. Petting should be done as massage – slow kneading or stroking, not vigorous patting or thumping.
4. Every Dog Needs Her Own Spot: You can use your management tether and your clicker to teach your dog a very useful calming exercise, called “Go To Your Spot.” Fix up her tether station so it’s very comfortable, with a soft bed, really good chew toys and unspillable water. Toss a treat onto the bed and say “Go To Your Spot.” When she gets there and is about to snatch up the treat, click! your clicker. Repeat several times, clicking and treating each time, until she goes to her spot easily. Then attach the tether to her collar. Sit in a chair nearby but out of her reach, and read a book. If she fusses, ignore her. When she’s quiet, click! and toss her a treat.
Occasionally when she’s being calm, get up, go over to her bed and quietly pet and praise her. If she gets overly excited when you’re with her, go back to your chair and sit down again.
When she’s calm on her tether for long stretches – up to five or ten minutes with occasional treats and visits – remove the tether and continue to reward her for lying calmly on her bed. If she revs up again, you can re-tether her and practice more calm.
You can also practice this when guests are visiting. Give your dog an extra tiring play-session before they arrive so she can be on her best behavior. If she still greets them too enthusiastically have her go to her spot, tethered if necessary, and wait until she’s calm to allow guests to greet her. When she’s relaxed, untether her so she can mingle with the visitors politely. If she gets carried away, she can do another session on her tether.
All Is Bright Dogs are social creatures. They don’t learn to be calm by being banished to the back yard. Time spent in isolation causes stress, which can cause hyperactivity. Dogs learn to be calm by spending time with their humans, being rewarded for calm behavior. A calm dog is a joy to be with. Like so many of the things we expect our dogs to learn, “calm” is easier to teach sooner, rather than later, but it’s rarely too late. Whether you have a baby dog doing puppy rushes around the coffee table or an adolescent who is breaking down your doors, it’s time to start clicking for calm.
THE REWARDS OF TEACHING CALM
Our dogs are not the only ones who respond well to rewards; we humans do too. We find it very rewarding to have a relaxed, well-behaved dog with whom we can share our lives.
If you successfully train your overly energetic dog to appreciate a more peaceful existence, you’ll both reap the benefits. He will probably:
1. Interact with you and other family members more gently 2. Greet visitors more politely 3. Earn “house privileges” sooner 4. Be a good canine ambassador when you take him out in public
You will probably:
1. Spend more quality time with your dog at home 2. Take him with you on more outings 3. Look for more fun things to do with him (advanced training, agility, flyball, tracking, animal assisted therapy, search and rescue) 4. Be calmer and more relaxed yourself 5. Follow through on your commitment to provide your dog with the lifelong loving home he deserves
Peaceable Paws LLC Pat Miller, CPDT, CDBC 301-582-9420 www.peaceablepaws.com
Pat Miller is a Certified Dog and Horse Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer. She offers classes, behavior modification services, training clinics and academies for trainers at her 80-acre Peaceable Paws training facility in Fairplay, Maryland (US), and presents seminars worldwide. She has authored “The Power of Positive Dog Training,” “Positive Perspectives,” “Positive Perspectives 2,” and “Play With Your Dog.” Miller is training editor for The Whole Dog Journal, writes for Tuft’s University’s Your Dog, and several other publications. She shares her home with husband Paul, five dogs, three cats, five horses, a donkey and a potbellied pig. www.peaceablepaws.com