Dr. Ian Dunbar is not a comedian, but sometimes he plays one on stage. In a witty speech widely available on the Internet, the veterinarian and noted dog trainer riffs on the common mistakes made by hapless humans at the dog park. As soon as the dog realizes he’s going to the park, “He’s doing moon loops, and they put him on leash, rewarding the crazy behavior,” Dunbar says.
The dog then drags the family to the park, arriving out-of-his mind excited. “You know, he’s running circles, he’s barking, he’s goosing them, he’s tearing at their clothing,” says Dunbar. And they unhook the leash and let him go play. “How wrong can you be? You just gave the dog the biggest reward in urban dogdom, for acting like a total loon!” And that’s not all, he says, it gets worse: they ignore the dog for 45 minutes while he blissfully plays, and then they call him, clip on the leash, and drag him away.
The result? These dog parents have inadvertently rewarded unwanted behavior (pulling, goosing, jumping, acting like a loon), and taught that good behavior (coming when called) means the fun is over.
Clever creatures that they are, dogs will quickly decide that it’s no fun to come when Mom and Dad call. So then Mom and Dad start to sound really angry when they call, calling again and again, ever more frustrated. When Rover finally does come, Dunbar says, “They grab it and do ugly face: ‘You baaaad dog, don’t you do that again!’”
Dunbar’s audience gets a big kick out of this, because, like all good humor, there’s truth in it. After all, who hasn’t been there? Your dog ignores you at the dog park or bolts out the door while you’re carrying in groceries, and by the time she comes back, you’re doing your own version of ugly face. But there is a solution.
“You have to throw a little party,” says Certified Pet Dog Trainer Scott Raymond, “even if you’re angry.” The senior trainer and owner of Synergy Behavior Solutions in Northwest Portland adds, “The thing to remember is that dogs are working off of what motivates them and what’s pleasurable to them. You want to make sure they understand that coming to you will always be really fun.”
Easy enough, right? We all know how to be fun. But the challenge with dogs is that we need to be more fun than the squirrel or cat or neighborhood dog or funky smell that they’re chasing when we call them. It’s pretty stiff competition. So we need to get a leg up on the competition, which means we need to start early and practice often.
“You have to make the reward really intense,” Raymond tells his clients. “You also want to start it in a place that’s easy for them. Out in the world you’re fighting against the squirrels and all of those temptations. You might start practicing in the house, and then in the back yard, and then out front where things are even more exciting.”
As you increase the challenge, you want to set your dog up for success by using a long leash or a fence to prevent him from failing. And every time he does the right thing, “You reward him massively with really yummy treats,” says Raymond. “We usually make those rewards happen for 5-10 seconds, having a little party with them.” If your party animal is more motivated by the ball or a back-scratch, that’s good too; just make sure he’s amply rewarded for coming to you and that he gets many chances to practice this good behavior.
As you venture out into the world, reinforce the idea that coming to you is always good. At the dog park, call her to you, reward her, and then let her go and play again. “You can imagine if you always had something unpleasant happen like not being able to go play after you do something, you’d probably start avoiding the thing that stops the fun,” says Raymond, who is also the proud parent of four dogs.
It takes some advance work and plenty of reinforcement, but it’s worth it. “I always tell people to imagine what it would be like if your dog could do this and how much difference it would make in your life,” says Raymond. “It really doesn’t take that long. We start people working a few minutes a couple times a day. It can make a huge difference.”
And it beats ugly face, hands down.
Intrigued? Watch Dr. Dunbar’s informative and often amusing talk at in the video below or contact Synergy Behavior Solutions at http://www.synergybehavior.com.