I’ve always had a love for dog training and dog behavior (despite the lack of training my own dogs have, lol). I’ve done so much research on different problems and can usually council on a variety of behavioral topics. My specialty is dogs but I’m widening my repertoire to include cats and eventually more exotic pets. I went through a phase with my dogs in trying to get them trained (Murcie was even enrolled in Puppy Basics). I suppose retrospectively it was a mix of laziness, energy, time and whatever else that led to my failure. Despite all of this information, I’m excited to have the inspiration, time and energy ( 😀 ) to start a training trial once again.
This doesn’t come without some incentive. Many of you don’t know much about Murcie. She is a strong-willed, smart, dominant female boxer. It was difficult to socialize her properly when she was a puppy because of some health issues. That paired with her lack of training created a dog that did not like other dogs (that’s a nice description of it). I won’t dwell on the past, but currently it is difficult to take her on walks. I’ve learned to be hyper-vigilant and scan the horizon for dogs on leashes and I know my route enough to stay away from the fences with dogs lurking behind. Dog parks don’t exist in her world. When we go home for the holidays she barely tolerates the two family dogs and we almost always have to break up a skiff that develops. This last Christmas was especially difficult. There was a little situation with an elderly, blind Min Pin that is pushing me to take some sort of action.
Despite all of my training, it is hard to know where to start. I want to try to work on her behavior myself a bit before I give up and pay a lot of money for a trainer. I’m hoping that this isn’t me being egotistical about my abilities and lack of desire to want to spend a lot of money. Time will tell. Though I’m confident that I can be honest with myself in identifying if what I’m doing isn’t going to help.
I’m formulating a plan in my mind and when I got home from work today I decided that I would start trying to control her behavior while on a walk. Excited (fueled by potential for the future and Starbucks), I gathered my supplies:
Now, years ago, I had introduced both of them to clicker-training. For those that don’t know, clicker training is the best thing since digital thermometers and it is super-easy to use. A quick summary is that it builds off of the positive reinforcement that we already know works great for training (I’m also currently learning that cats are receptive to clicker training from The Cat Coach’s new book, Cat Fancy’s Naughty No More). You start by “prepping” the clicker (which I did for a few minutes, hoping old memories would come back…they did!) by showing them what the point of it is. The sound of the clicker should automatically make them think of a treat/reward. So, you click it, then treat and repeat as much as necessary. When I first started, I did it over the course of thirty minutes or so. I would let them wander off, go do their own thing and click it. You know it’s working when you click it and they come running because they know they are going to get a treat.
Positive Reinforcement training works best when you can treat them at the very instant they do what you want them to do. It can be difficult to achieve this split second behavior by handing them a treat in the usual manner. The clicker helps with this by allowing you to convey to them that they have performed the correct behavior the instant they do it. You can follow up with a treat afterward, knowing that they know what behavior they performed was good by the sound of the clicker. Make sense?
My ultimate goal for Murcie (Enzo isn’t that bad, but I figure he could use some learning too) is for her to pay attention to me when there is outside stimulus. Such as, a dog walking by across the street. I want to get her to where she is sitting in front of me, looking at me (or at least passively watching anything else) while another dog is wandering by. I hope to further use this as a branch for gaining her attention when walking her by a dog on the other side of the fence. Right now, at best, I can get her to sit tensely, facing the other dog, eyes locked. I don’t like this, because in all reality, even though I have control of her body, I don’t have control of her.
Like many tricks, this one must be done in stages. The first stage, I want to work on saying the command (I’m choosing “Whoah”) and having her make eye contact with me. So. My point of success at this stage is her eye contact (at which point I’d push the clicker). I’m also pairing it with stopping my pace.
I started the walk out strong. The very first time I said the command, both of them paused and looked back at me with identical expressions. I clicked and both got a treat. **I have to admit that I was a little weary about trying this because despite being heavily treat motivated, in her past she doesn’t care for treats when distracted by any stimulus, like a walk. ** It was exciting, the thrill of starting to teach them something new. I repeated this every half of a block or so with about 90% success. It was 0% success whenever there was outside stimulus (dog behind fence or person walking across the street). Irritatingly enough, while Murcie got better, Enzo got worse. He stopped looking at me altogether as though my words meant less than the wind rushing around his ears. If he did look at me, he would drop the treat out of his mouth as though a leaf instead had blown in. I’m not too worried about this since he usually goes what Murcie does, so if I can get control of Murcie, he should fall in line.
** I know that it is more efficient to train them by themselves. It is somewhat hard to convey how stressful it is to take them on walks by themselves since the other one stresses, pants and whines when I take their buddy out without them. Not only that, but it seems like whatever I teach on these solo trips isn’t remembered when they are together. **
I ran out of treats before the exercise was finished, but I think that I had reached her limit anyway. I finished the walk (about 4 miles), feeling good about the future of her behavior. I know it is going to take much more than just modifying her behavior on walks, and I feel like this is a good starting point. Something I can focus on that will allow me to branch out afterward.