If you've ever taken a class with me you have probably heard me say over and over again that we want to i) get the behaviour first and then ii) pair it with the word. I find a lot of people use the word "drop it" with their dogs without ever having done any training beforehand to teach the dog what drop it actually means.
I like to start this with a toy for a few reasons. First because I want to be able to give the object back as a reward; and secondly, I want the dog to feel like "drop it" is part of the game. It should never be taught with intimidation or by trying to scare the dog because as mentioned in Part I, this tends to make the dog defensive and you may end up causing your dog to guard. The point is to make the dog want to spit the item out happily.
Step 1 - Offer or toss the toy to entice the dog to pick it up in its mouth.
Step 2 - Once the dog is holding the toy, show the dog (let it sniff if need be) a high value (read: smelly & tasty) treat, and be ready to use your reward marker ("yes", "good", or a click if you are using a clicker) the moment the dog spits out the toy to take the treat.
Repeat Steps 1 & 2 until the dog is quickly spitting out the object as soon as the treat is presented.
Step 3 - Get your dog to take the toy again and add your cue (say "drop it") while you show the treat, still using your reward marker the moment the dog spits out the toy each time. You want to say "drop it" in a normal voice like you would say "sit" or any other cue. The point is to teach a word that can be used as an instruction; not to say it in a growly tone that might scare or intimidate your dog or be perceived as a threat.
Repeat Step 3 a few times and then try using your cue (drop it) without showing the treat right away, being ready to use your reward marker the moment the dog spits out the toy. If it does - great! That means the dog has associated the cue (drop it) with the behaviour (spitting the item out). You're ready to move on to Step 4.
Key Point: If it doesn't spit it out, don't keep repeating your cue. This means that the dog has not yet associated the cue with the behaviour yet, and repeating the cue will do nothing but make the dog start to ignore the word. You will need to practice Step 3 while separating the cue and prompt (showing the treat). What I mean by this is when you say "drop it", give the dog 1-2 seconds to think about/offer the behaviour before showing the treat to prompt the dog to drop the toy. Repeat this step until the dog starts to offer the behaviour (drop the toy) within 1-2 seconds of hearing the cue (drop it).
Step 4 - Now that your dog is spitting out the toy and expecting a treat, it's time to work on having the treat come later and from further away. You will still use your reward marker the moment your dog drops the item to mark the correct behaviour but the reward itself will start to come later. I usually start by having the treat in my pocket and practicing the drop it exercise, having the treat come out of my pocket once they have dropped the toy. Then I repeat the exercise having the treat come from the counter a step or two away from me, working up to getting the dog to drop the item with me going further away to get the treat. The idea here is to show the dog that the reward will come later or from further away. This is an important step if you want your dog to drop items when you don't have a treat in your hand!
Once your dog is doing this well, it's time to switch it up with some different variations of the game and make it more challenging. Here's where you can get creative, but here are some ideas that I've used with lots of success:
Earlier this week, Oakley (my rottweiler) disappeared into the bush for a few minutes and came back crunching on something that sounded like bone. He looked pretty proud of himself, but I knew it was probably something I didn't want him to have - and likely something I didn't want to touch! We weren't far from home anyways, so I let him carry it home so I could a) grab a really high value reward (lunch meat) to give him if he dropped it/trade for if he didn't just offer the drop in the first place; and b) grab a few plastic bags to pick the item up with after he dropped it. He spit it out willingly and scored some meat and if you want to see what he spit out, click the button below - WARNING if you don't want to see a dead animal part, don't click the button!
One thing I've found with my dogs (and dogs in general) is that they really aren't grossed out by anything; in fact, the nastier something is to us humans, the more valuable it usually is to the dog. Most of these nasty things turn up when we aren't prepared and they usually aren't things we regularly practice asking our dogs to drop, which is why it's a good idea to build your "drop it" cue with a higher value items and practice it regularly with a variety of items so it's there when you need it. I will be discussing in Part II how to get a reliable drop it cue, but for this post I am just going to say if you don't have a good drop cue, trading for something higher value is going to give you best results.
What not to do:
All of the above scenarios can be avoided by having a reliable drop it cue. You will be less likely to panic, run at your dog and shout if you are confident that your dog will drop items on command. You also won't give your dog a chance to turn it into a game of chase if you teach them to drop items on command (they younger they learn it and less chances they have to turn it into a game of chase, the better). Lastly if your dog is happy to drop items and is expecting to get something better in return, they won't be guarding items in the first place.
Any time you try to take something from your dog while trying to use intimidation you are creating a negative association with the situation, and the next time it happens you will likely see more avoidance and/or defensive behaviour, which will cause it to become harder to get items away each time. The reason I have mentioned to trade for something higher value is that you want the dog to be happy to give the item up - dogs don't guard things when they know they are going to get something better. They do appear to guard more fiercely when they are being defensive and have a negative association with having things taken away. Many owners don't realize that they actually create or exacerbate guarding behaviour by punishing or intimidating their dogs. Once again please consult a qualified positive reinforcement trainer for hands-on help if you are seeing guarding behaviour. This post is NOT intended as a fix in resource guarding cases.
Check back soon for "Drop It" Part II: How to get it!
When you think about getting a dog, there are a lot of questions you consider: Can I afford the food, toys, vet bills, training, and other expenses? Am I choosing a breed that fits my lifestyle? Do I have time to commit to meeting its exercise and training needs? Often the questions asked pertain to early stages of life and we often (mistakenly) assume that the older the dog gets, the less it will need. While in some ways an older dog is a lot easier to manage than a younger dog, I am learning with my ~12 year old doberman, Dexter, that old dogs don't need less - their needs just change.
You figure once you get your pup making it through the night without needing a potty break that your sleepless nights are over. Wrong. One of the first changes I started to notice as Dex entered his senior years was that he would pace at night, and sometimes I would wake up to him whining and sometimes even bumping into things and I'd need to turn on the lights to help him find his way to bed. Cataracts are common in older dogs and my vet suggested leaving a bathroom light on or setting up a nightlight to help with this. While it did help, I do find there are nights where he is just restless and has a hard time settling. I have also noticed that if there is a thunderstorm, he now often drools and gets quite anxious despite having never had an issue with storms in the past. I never thought he'd need a thunder-shirt, but now he has one (and looks pretty cute in it).
Most days, Dex is still a big, playful and active puppy but there are days he wakes up very stiff and just wants to sleep on the couch and have space away from the other dogs. I have a front living room for him to go to so he can get away from the other dogs, and he definitely appreciates having his own space to retreat to at times. When I sit down beside him on my laptop answering emails, he will rest his head or paw in my lap to remind me that just because he wants to sit out the hike that day doesn't mean he doesn't need me to spend time with him. Also worth noting is that his mental needs haven't decreased - I may not be asking my arthritic dog to offer sits or lie down on command as much but he still enjoys less physically demanding tasks and things like treat-balls and puzzle toys, still enjoys interactions with other dogs most days, and he still loves to get new toys. The key is judging from day to day what he is up for, expecting his tolerance level for some things to be lower on some days than others, and being creative in finding ways to stimulate his mind. Also being patient and understanding when he does odd things like barking at a wall or just very out of context behaviours in general.
A lot of what I have experienced with Dex is well explained by many accounts of canine cognitive dysfunction, which you can read more about here: http://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/neurological/5-signs-dog-dementia
Perhaps one of the most difficult things for me to accept as a trainer is a regression in his reactivity training. We had made huge gains with him - getting to the point where we could have people come over for pool parties and have him settle within a minute after someone new came or sometimes not reacting at all to now needing to give him more time to learn to trust new people again. No matter what, it is always about setting him up to succeed and setting realistic expectations.
A dog truly is a lifelong commitment and it really breaks my heart to see older dogs in shelters knowing how hard it is on my own dog some days to cope with his changing body even though he has a really supportive and stable environment. I hope this post can encourage people to understand what to expect as their pets age and how to make sure to provide for them in their golden years.
Do you have an older dog? What are some changes you've noticed and ways you've helped your dog to cope?
With the KW Pet Expo coming up I've been asked by a few people if they think its a good place to take their dog for socialization. My answer on this one depends on if you have built up to crowds/close passes with strange dogs and if your dog is bombproof enough to handle other dogs potentially barking/lunging at them if another owner fails to maintain enough space/control of their dog. Think about it like defensive driving - it's not just you but others on the road or in the space that could cause problems for you and your dog. If you've built up to this level of stimulation and feel confident navigating your dog through it - Great! I'm not saying it's a bad place for every dog, BUT for many dogs this could be an overwhelming and stressful situation, in which case it is not an ideal place to work on socializing your dog. Having enough space to move away from scary things is important and often not an option in crowded areas/aisles. Karen Pryor has a great article for more information on appropriate socialization: https://clickertraining.com/dont-socialize-the-dog. If it seems like it might be overwhelming, your pup might prefer that you go without him/her and focus on your shopping and bring him/her back some new swag!
Dogs are amazing creatures that bring joy into our lives in countless ways and love us even when we make mistakes. Being a dog trainer doesn't make me immune to making mistakes (that little girl pictured left is very quick to point that out!) and while I have many answers for common behavioural problems, there isn't a day that goes by that I don't learn something new from the dogs that come into my life - be it in classes or in my home. I've decided to open up and share some of my experiences through this blog for the same reason I decided to become a trainer in the first place: to help people understand their dogs and build a lasting relationship built on trust. So whether you own a dog and can relate to some of these experiences or just want to stop by to see some cute pictures or videos and laugh at some puppy antics, I hope you enjoy some of the tales I am about to share. The majority of these posts will be tales of dogs who have come to stay at my home, but from time to time I may share (with permission) some of the tales of the dogs I have had the pleasure of helping along my path as a dog trainer. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments or ask questions. I just ask (as always) that you keep it positive :)