I’m a huge fan of using food and toys as a means of providing fun, motivation to focus and reward for good behaviour. This is never more relevant on the walks I do with my dogs as I’m competing with so many environmental distractions. But there are also several fun games I play with my boys on walks which are aimed to improve recall, without using food, toys or even talking. All you need is a big field away from roads and some long grass or field boundaries. A quiet bridle bath would work well as an alternative.
You’re improving recall by placing the responsibility on your dog to find you, catch up with you, keep his eye on you, or he might lose you. In all the games below, the aim is to see how long it takes for your dog to realise you’ve gone. You should not only see an improvement in how quickly he catches up, checks in or finds you, but also a reduction in his range, how far he’s prepared to leave you in the first place.
If you’re struggling and your dog pays no attention to you when you try these games, then more training and play is needed to improve your bond with your dog in the first place. Go back to using food and toys. Play recall games with your dog before trying the games below again. Remember if taking the dog for a walk was a unilateral undertaking, you might as well just open the door and let him out. You have to start by making yourself part of the fun, not a witness to it. Happy Training!
I stop, you stop!
As your dog potters on ahead, stop. Say nothing, and time how long it takes for him to realise you’re no longer following him. You’re looking for the dog to stop and turn towards you to see what’s going on. As soon as they do this, start walking again.
‘I’m off! Better catch Up!’
While your dog is distracted, walk fast, or run on ahead. Time how long it takes for them to realise you’ve gone without them and for them to catch up. You should see an element of urgency as they work out you’ve left them behind.
With your dog up ahead, drop and hide! Say nothing but wait for them to come find you. You may see them run straight past your location and only get a scent of you when they pass by. Try to avoid the temptation to tell them where you are. Do make a gentle fuss and praise them when they find you.
On one walk, I reduced the dog’as range considerably just by playing these games with Sage, Guinness and Jellybean. Watch the first video again and now this one. Look at the distance reduced as to how far ahead they are prepared to go.
This type of training is great fun and should help improve your dog’s voluntary connection with you on walks. It takes some pressure off the owner to be the one always working on calling the dog and instead place some responsibility on the dog to pay attention.
Anthropomorphising animals isn’t a good idea and usually gets us into all kinds of trouble. Dogs are not furry babies. They are their own species, with a totally different set of day to day priorities & communication signals. However spending time with nieces, nephews and god-children over the years, I’m amazed that the toddler stage in kids has so many similarities with puppy development. Both in terms of how puppies explore the world and how we deal with the frustrations such interaction may bring, puppies and toddlers aren’t all that different at all.
Walking anywhere takes forever!
If you’ve tried rushing somewhere with a toddler, you’ll know it’s impossible not to investigate every single leaf, anthill or cloud. They bumble along exploring the world with surprising interest as you try to encourage, cajoul and sometimes carry them onward. Now, how many new puppy owners find they get no-where on a walk? Pups will sit down, refuse to move, sniff, sniff some more, chase a leaf, spook at then check out an unusual object. For both kids and young dogs, with distractions aplenty, everything needs to be investigated, in case it’s not safe, in case it tastes good, in case it gives feedback. Despite what owners often tell me, there is nothing wrong with your puppy and you need to give them time to learn about the world. Don’t plan your walks from A to B. Plan your walks according to what your pup is learning. Interact, have fun, encourage and explore together. Give them a chance to learn about the world. Don’t just march through it at adult human pace because you’ve only left 10 mins to get home again. Allow them to step on, step in, put feet up (inanimate objects only obviously), sniff, grab, live.
‘I absolutely must not miss out on the action.’
Every parent knows that toddlers need quality sleep to recharge and that quality sleep means a quiet space, ideally dark and cosy, without external stimulus. When toddlers are over tired and over stimulated, they get cranky, which means they can’t settle down and are less likely to get quality sleep. Guess what puppy owners? Your dog is no different. If there is even the least exciting amount of activity going on, your puppy will not have the maturity to take himself off for a sleep, unless he’s totally exhausted. If you overstimulate him (post-play, post-walk, post-visitor, post-kids-coming-in-from-school), and you don’t then allow him to recharge, this is likely to result in biting, racing around as if his brain is on fire and generally being a looney. Most owners report this behaviour early evening, when puppy should be in bed, asleep, but in fact it can go on throughout the day also. Make opportunities for quality sleep time. Put him away somewhere dark, warm, cosy and boring so he can catch up on sleep and avoid becoming cranky & over tired. Most pups needs at least 14hrs sleep a day. Make sure he has the chance to get it!
Everything is potentially dangerous.
My friends husband told me in despair one day that being a parent to a toddler was really just about making sure they don’t kill themselves. If something can be climbed on, fallen off or tripped over then it’s likely your toddler has done so. A puppy’s ability to get into (dangerous) mischief is also phenomenally high. The number of puppies I’ve known who have quite seriously injured themselves by throwing themselves from a height is huge. Such injury can affect a dog for its entire life and cause all kinds of problems. Leave a well fitting harness on your pup (except when left alone) as they explore. Plenty of material there to grab to help them up, help them down, guide them under & ultimately prevent injury. Supervise, supervise, supervise and when you can’t supervise, use a crate or puppy safe area.
Show, don’t tell.
Dogs don’t speak English. So no matter how many times you tell them something (even in the loud, firm voice someone in the park told you to use), they may not necessarily understand what it is you’re trying to communicate. If your toddler had climbed on the table, you would tell them to get off, then take their hand and guide them to safety. It’s known as guided learning and pups can learn in exactly the same way. Rather than waste your breath repeating things over and over, tell them, then show them. For example, using a lightweight nylon leash, I might say ‘leave it’ to my pup, then gently move them away from the bin, rewarding them with a tasty treat when they come with me. They learn ‘Leave it’ means, come away from that and you’ll get rewarded. Yes, you’ll have to repeat it but all training is about putting patterns of behaviour into your dog’s mind. At least your pup is learning what you intend him to learn, and not something else entirely. No-one is being shouted at. Owners aren’t frustrated and pups aren’t being scared or wound-up by the learning process.
‘That looks tasty.’
Parents know that toddlers put everything into their mouth. It’s called ‘oral fixation’ and it’s a developmental stage, usually associated with teething, soothing and exploring the world through their mouth. Have you ever stopped to think that pups are going through exactly the same stage of development? They just have sharper teeth, and more access to chewable stuff than the average toddler. Providing safe outlets for puppy chewing needs (stuffed frozen Kongs, antlers, Nylabones) and removing danger from puppy’s reach can help. Additionally, training a reliable ‘drop’ or swap for times when puppy has something dangerous in his mouth is invaluable. It will help avoid vet visits to have swallowed items surgically removed. It could avoid an &E visits to treat a bite from a reluctant dog refusing to give up a stolen item. Win, win for all!
So the next time you’re getting frustrated when your puppy refuses to walk, or flings himself around in excitement, take a step back. Try to think how you’d manage things if he was an 18 month old child with limited verbal communication skills, huge potential to injure himself and a crazy interest in a world we see as mundane. Dogs aren’t furry humans, but as pups, they have more in common with toddlers than most puppy owners have ever considered.
Jellybean has been learning ‘On Your Bed’ recently. We started sowing the seeds that his bed is a great place to be, really early on, using basic shaping, as seen with Rossi at the start of this video. We have only progressed training further in the past few weeks. This is a really fun exercise and handy too. All my dogs learn to go and settle on a mat/bed as part of their training. On your bed can be used as the basis for a solid stay, relaxed behaviour in public, sendaways for competition Obedience or Working Trials, holding position on the start line at agility and domestically, a great command to have when people visit your home and you don’t want the dogs rushing to the door. This exercise is also part of the Kennel Club Good Citizen Gold level test in the UK.
It was once said that 3 repetitions of any learning & most dogs have got it! The foundations of a behaviour is there, set down for further progress & learning. It this is true, the potential to learn great things is wide open for most pet dogs & their owners. However, think also about the potential to learn bad things, naughty stuff which will make our lives as owners more difficult to deal with as puppy gets older.
Habits are being formed from the moment that puppy comes into his new home, whether we intervene or not. However, it’s our job, as owners, to try to insure that only good habits are growing. This means, to start with at least, hard work & vigilance. It’s crucial to supervise puppy at times he’s likely to make up his own rules or forms of entertainment. Secondly, it means plenty of classical conditioning. This is the inherent link between certain environmental signals, & the promise that good things are about to happen. Finally, it takes management. The use of a crate, puppy pen & leash, to avoid puppy learning habits which could be really difficult to unlearn at a later stage.
Jellybean’s access to the garden is a great example of where bad habits have the potential to be formed. For at least the first 10 months, his garden access is strictly monitored & supervised to avoid all kinds of shenanigans which may become a problem at a later stage. Barking at the neighbour’s noisy dog is very tempting. Chasing my cats is something all my puppies eventually try to engage in (see how to stop this with Time Out! here). What about digging in the flowerbeds or escaping (the garden is pretty dog proof but Jellybean is a terrier after all)?
Throughout my day to day interaction with my new puppy, I’m always ready to step in, to teach good habits at times when I’ve seen the seeds of any annoying behaviour growing. The puppy pen & crate are used at ALL times I’m not directly supervising the Jellybaby so that chewing habits are only formed with things I’m happy for him to chew, stuffed Kongs, Nylabones, Stag Bars etc. Finally, I offer plenty of environmental enrichment, projects to keep him busy so that he’s got very little energy left to find his own entertainment around the house or garden.
It’s far easier to learn, than unlearn. It’s hard work but these early habits are being formed by your puppy whether you, the owner like it or not. Be involved, guide, teach, encourage, manage & reward. Be the director of the habits your puppy is learning, not a witness to them.
I am an unapologetic user of food when it comes to training my dogs. Jellybean was chosen for his equal love of toys and food. Motivating a dog to work for you by using toys and food as rewards, is one of the simplest ways to teach behaviours we like. However, somewhere in the process of getting to know your new puppy, they need to learn to work for you, just you, not because you’re a treat dispensary. When you un-clip the leash in public and give them the ultimate reward of running free, the only thing you’ll really have to rely on to keep them with you, is your mutual emotional connection.
It’s imperative to me that my dogs know I’m happy with them. At the minute the ONLY time Jellybean has seen me less than pleased, has been when he is rough with my cats. I’m incredibly selective about correction. What I want is for puppy to think I’m amazing, fun, snugly, silly and most of all, that I’m totally and utterly in love with him. Eye contact says ‘I love you’ it says ‘I think you’re the best dog in the whole world and there is nowhere I’d rather be, than here with you. And believe it or not, dogs have evolved to read the emotion in our faces, to connect with us, to stare into our eyes and know we love them. Over time, the feeling becomes mutual. Did you know that feel good chemicals are released when we stare into the eyes of the ones we love? This happens with parents and babies, human partners and dogs and owners also.
But there’s more. One sure way to know if your dog is paying attention to you, is to have him look at you. But it’s not enough-especially when those teenage months kick in-to have eye contact on command. Indeed, for many years now, I’ve not taught the command ‘watch me’ at all. Instead I focus on training voluntary eye contact by setting up situations where the dog gradually learns that ignoring distraction and focusing on me instead, reaps huge rewards for him. So voluntarily checking in is worth his while and at the same time, his focus shifts from other dogs/squirrels/bikes etc.back onto me.
That’s several pretty of good reason to train eye contact as part of your puppy’s interaction with you. It’s simple and it’s fun and it’s mutually beneficial to you both, as all good training should be.