What to do when my adolescent male dog does not obey me anymore?!

We got Forbes the Aussie boy in March when he was 7 months old. Forbes was well socialized, well mannered and used to being at busy doggy events as he had been to plenty of conformation shows. I have never had a shepherd breed dog before and in my mind I have just had this picture of a border collie type of a character who learns quickly the way we humans want and gets to win all the obedience titles in no time. Because of this mental image I was thinking YES! I get to experiment with a dog who is not a guard dog for a change (Hovawarts, I still love you!), will love to work for me (after all I am great person, aren’t I), will learn everything that I teach him ultra-fast and this year we will be flying through rally obedience trials. I will be doing clicker training demos with him because he is just a working machine willing to keep going forever (just for me and my lovely personality), and everyone will be sold to take clicker training classes from me. I was looking forward to my effortless journey to stardom!

Well I’ve got some news: I was wrong. My silly plans for sailing through competition titles and loooong clicker training demos this year have been now very officially abandoned. What happened, after all I had such a great plan??! What happened is called Life With an Adolescent Male Dog. Throughout the spring I trained Forbes tricks like targeting to do heeling, go to mat and spinning on the perch in my training studio (as in our living room, for movies see my Vimeo site). By the way, the first ‘surprise’ to crash my romantic view of shepherds as the readers of the human mind came pretty soon, I discovered that even shepherd breed dogs are just dogs, they can be very sensitive to how you raise your criteria during training, they cannot read my mind! This was the first ‘DOH, what the h*** were you thinking trainer’ for me. Anyways, now during the past month my intention has been to take these behaviors on the road, and start practicing them seriously outside. The intention was good but then Life With an Adolescent Male happened. A deep sigh, and the second ‘DOH, what the h*** were you thinking’ for me.

What do I do when I have a plan to go outdoors for a little obedience training session with the Adolescent Male? I know to do the following:

  • Lower the criteria from my indoor training session, outdoors is MUCH more distracting
  • Keep the the training session(s) short enough so that the dog can maintain focus
  • Use really high value reinforcements for a hungry, well rested dog: steak and the toys that he only gets to play with during training
  • Try and manipulate the environment so that the distractions are minimum

Once again, I’ve got news: it just may not work this easily! My standard for any obedience training session is that eye contact with me is maintained: where the dog’s eyes are that’s where his mind is. But what tends to often happen these days is that as soon as we get outside the house, the Adolescent Male may spot some female dog pee and does that jaw clattering movement to ingest it in its whole glory, YIKES!!! After that I might just as well eat the steak and juggle my pathetic tennis balls all on my own. Then he may spot another dog or two coming from around the corner, and gets all excited: hey dude get out of my space! I start feeding him the steak for counter-conditioning, he will eat it if he has recovered from the delights of the ladies. This is usually OK but by the time we get to our quiet training spot he may already be pretty full of the steak, so much for the training session I had planned. Sometimes we can do our little sessions without surprises but life is just very unpredictable. A deep sigh.

As a dog trainer, I caught myself yesterday thinking, am I such a bad trainer that I cannot even make my own dog obey me?! And this was my third ’DOH, what the h*** were you thinking’ moment. I should have the capability to break things down for my dog, make a systematic training plan, set priorities, take advantage of the learning theory. I guess while I’ve been busy doing this for other people and their dogs, I’ve forgotten that the same recipes apply to me. Some other trainer may be able to solve things easier than me, I have no doubt about that, but hey this is me and my dog, this is our situation, these are my training skills, what can I do with the resources available to me?

Hence it is officially time to start a 5-week boot-camp program for Forbes and I, right here, right now! YEAH! That’s the big plan but I need a lot more details. I am not going to expect any complex behaviors out in the Big World until we have some solid basics together.  So what do I want?

Big goal #1: A reliable recall that works 99% of the time.

I have done a lot of hand targeting with Forbes, which I was planning to be his recall cue as well. However, when he first arrived I did this a few times when he was anxious about something outside with the result that I kind of poisoned this cue for him. Now the palm of my hand presented to him in some contexts means ’Something that I need to be worried about is around’.  So we’ll forget about that as a recall cue. Thank goodness for Casey Lomonaco’s recent series of Dogster blogs on recall, I will steal her recipe to classically condition a recall for Forbes. A clear cue ’TULE’ (in Finnish yes!) always paired with Heavenly Goodies. Forbes is already conditioned to the word indoors and easy places outside, now I need to build the distractions in.

First lets categorize the distraction difficulty levels for a recall similarly to what Casey did, and I will relate them to Forbes being outdoors:

LEVEL 1, dog notices the distraction but will happily come: inside the house unless he is eating, right outside the house close to me and facing me, no dogs/people/smells around

LEVEL 2,  dog will come most of the time come: outside within 10 m from me facing me, no dogs/people/smells around.

LEVEL 3, usually comes but sometimes blows me off: running in the fields like a beast, another dog on leash 100 m away.

LEVEL 4, hardly ever comes: sudden movement around, interesting sounds in the bush, when staring at another dog, sniffing the garbage or message board.

LEVEL 5, will never come: while making love to message board/playing with another dog.

Second, lets start the 5-week program for this Sacred Recall, we will spend 1 week at each level and do at least 5 x 5 repetition sessions each day. Towards the end of every week we will also start adding more distance.

Big goal #2: Taking advantage of environmental reinforcements.

Lets try the Premack principle which means that a high likelihood behavior will reinforce a lower likelihood behavior occurring before it. In practice, as a reward for ANY orientation towards me, Forbes will get the ultimate reinforcement of going to check the message board/run in a field. I will call this behavior ’Go and Do Whatever’. Leslie McDevitt calls this Give me a Break Game in her Control Unleashed.  As his default behavior to offer me in exchange for Do Whatever I would like to be the most basic obedience movement which is ‘Sit at Halt’ or ‘Finish’. We will gradually work towards that goal starting first from just eye contact. I really need to get our ‘Finish’ on verbal cue quickly, we will work on it indoors like crazy, so that I can start using it outside as well.

Big Goal #3: Keep eye contact with me outside for longer and longer periods of time, when ‘training obedience’.

In indoor spaces and in busy places like Pet Smart with lots going on this is not a problem, his eyes are glued to me (which also can be a bit spooky :-)). But outside with those sudden distractions only little glances at me are happening (if they are happening) at the moment.

WEEK 1: 3 times a day indoors Sit at Halt with eye contact for 5 clicks and treats.  3 times on every walk Sit at Halt with eye contact for 2 clicks and treats followed by a tennis ball or ‘Do Whatever’.

WEEK 2: 3 times a day indoors Sit at Halt with eye contact for 10 clicks and treats, followed by a tennis ball or ‘Do Whatever’. 3 times on every walk Sit at Halt with eye contact for 4 clicks and treats followed by a tennis ball or ‘Do Whatever’.

WEEK 3: 3 times on every walk Sit at Halt with eye contact for 4 clicks and treats, then departure from the position while holding eye contact for one step, reward this by click and treat, followed by a tennis ball or ‘Do Whatever’. For the departures I may use a target stick.

WEEK 4: 3 times on every walk Sit at Halt with eye contact for 4 clicks and treats, then departure from the position while holding eye contact for two steps, reward this by click and treat, followed by a tennis ball or ‘Do Whatever’.

WEEK 5: 3 times on every walk Sit at Halt with eye contact for 4 clicks and treats, then departure from the position while holding eye contact for 3-4 steps, reward this by click and treat, followed by a tennis ball or ‘Do Whatever’.

Oh boy, I’m exhausted just writing this! And OK today is Sunday, lets start tomorrow, the beginning of a new week. If things don’t work it is just my own fault for not training.  In 5 weeks I will report where we stand!

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Mirkka

Mirkka

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