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The Engaged Dog
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rr-is-your-dog-bored-1-200x334pxHow many times have you felt your dog was "bored" with training? I hear this, especially from my performance people.

This always brings me to a dead stop. Why? Because I have NEVER felt that my dogs were bored with training. This does not mean that they were perfect by any stretch of the imagination! My dogs make many errors and often lack judgement. To me, this is just part of training.

Why Do People Feel Their Dog is Bored?

I have queried the students who bring me this statement and this is what I have gleaned from the information they have given to me:

  • Their dog is not bored, he is confused. Your approximations have not explained to this dog exactly what the procedure is. Perhaps your approximations are too large - it does not matter if the other 20 dogs you taught this exercise learned it this way. This dog is not - and right at this moment his opinion is what matters!
  • Their dog is not bored, he just cannot imagine why you would be doing this particular thing. And whatever the dog's handler is doing at that moment is not convincing the dog that there IS indeed a reason to do this. He is just flat uninterested in whatever it is you want him to do, because it just does not follow any of his instincts.
  • Their dog is not bored, he has a bad feeling about this particular exercise. Perhaps in the past something happened while you were training this exercise and it frightened or made the dog feel uneasy. If your dog is not super confident around other dogs and while he was fetching a dumbbell, another, bolder dog ran towards him while he was in the process of picking up the dumbbell, well, this really could blow some dogs right out of the water! The next time you set up to retrieve, he doesn't want to leave your side!
  • Their dog is not stressed, he is frustrated. He feels that he just cannot quite get it right, no matter how hard he tries.

In all of these scenarios, dogs tend to do one of two things - they stress up or they stress down.

Stressing Up vs. Stressing Down

When the dog stresses up, he doesn't look bored, he often looks totally out of control! Running around, getting the "zoomies," increasing his activity level, these are all examples of a dog stressing up. If you have the right kind of dog who stresses up and gets a little frustrated, they might jump up and grab at your arms or hands, grip your clothing - or in the case of my terriers, grab your pant leg or shoelaces and give it a good shake!

But the dogs that stress down, often do look uninterested. Some look downright sad about the situation. Others just gaze off into space and plod along Sort Of Doing The Job. Some dogs just quit. They move slower and slower until they come to a complete stop! Some dogs lie down and refuse to move.

These are the dogs that I think often look "bored" to their handler: The stress-down dogs. Remember, once the dog has gotten a little confused, frustrated, etc. during an exercise, that may be what comes to be a habit when that exercise is presented. But, no worries! You are a good trainer. You can overcome this tiny blip.

The Confused Dog

  • First of all you cannot punish a confused dog! This will definitely drive the dog into shut down.
  • Keep your approximations small. Even if you think the approximation is small, I bet you can break it down smaller - and even smaller. Walter Zettl, a dressage master, has a wonderful saying, "You should never teach your horse anything new." Wow! The power in that statement is amazing. It means that once you have taught a couple of basic behaviours, you are always and constantly building on your foundation - you keep the steps small and achievable. This in itself is motivating and prevents shut down.
  • Examine the "pattern" you are presenting to the dog - is it discernible from the dog's point of view? We often are unaware of our own body language anyhow it looks from the dog's point of view. I relieve confusion in dogs everyday just by quieting down the body parts of the flailing handler and making the handler body aware. Whew! The look of relief on the dogs face is priceless!

Why The Heck Would ANYONE Do This?

When what you are trying to teach the dog is not in line with that dog's instinct - and I cannot think of much obedience that would be - you need to make it extra fun. Teaching my terriers to heel attentively was no walk in the park, let me tell you.

  • It bears saying twice! Keep it extra fun. This does not mean you "beg" and "cheerlead" the dog. This backfires horribly. If the dog gets disinterested and you keep trying to be more interesting and fun and keep getting better treats - you are being very well-trained by your disinterested dog. The more disinterested he gets - the more reinforcing you get ... See the trap?!? No instead you keep sessions short and approximation very small to build success.
  • Try to make it more in line with your dog's instincts. Sometimes with the terriers I felt that the only way I could keep their attention was to morph into a small furry creature. That in itself would have been self-limiting, however, because I would only have held their interest for as long as it took to gulp me down! BUT, I could find a good motivator - for some it was treats, some preferred a ball. But what I really finally got into was really working attention and making that into a game. I worked a lot of distraction games and Impulse control games - these grew into something I could use to keep the dog with me long enough to reinforce the behaviours I was looking for.
  • Stop when the dog is still really interested in your motivator! Stop on a high note.

Missed Associations

What is salient to the dog is what gets learned. In this case, the dog was startled, and associated that startle with getting the dumbbell - or whatever he was doing. I had a noise sensitive dog who had a chair fall over behind her on the Sit Stay in the ring once. It really made a mess of my hard-won Sit Stay in the ring. It took quite a while to fix it.

Environments can work against you, and I think as trainers, we often feel like the environment is our enemy - It distracts our dog, it frightens our dog, it entices our dog away from us. The real answer here is desensitization. If a situation comes up, break it down into small components and work on desensitizing the dog to it. I didn't say it would be fun and easy - I am saying it can work very well to do this. In the case of the dog running towards your dog and startling her - I would do tons of dog approaches. Back Away dog approaches and also having dogs work around her in a controlled way while she is successful. Once she can do this, you can up the ante a bit and have a dog (on leash and under control) jog around her at a distance while she retrieves. Then have the dog jog closer, etc.

Your dog, especially if she is a little timid, really needs to feel she can trust you to keep her safe. What you do in situations that are beyond your control and how you act are very important to your dog. If, in such a case you panic and then baby the dog and act worried about it, then your dog will feel very validated in her fear. In such a situation here is what I would do.

Stay in the area. I would go right back to kindergarten with the retrieve - Can you touch the dumbbell? Yay! Treat! Can you pick the dumbbell up off the floor? Yay! Treat. I wouldn't leave the area until I could get SOMETHING. During this time the dog will be very worried and distracted. DO NOT follow your dog into that emotional state. She will not understand your upset because you see your hard work ruined, she will think you, too, are really afraid of that dog. Show her that you are fine and that SHE CAN SUCCEED. Don't worry about doing the complete exercise, just get a piece of it and as soon as she tries a little, jackpot her and then stop on a high note. She will do better each time if you keep your own self under control.

The Frustrated Dog

The frustrated dog I think, most often stresses up.  They bark, push at its handler, etc. But some get frustrated and just give up.

Use the strategy of smaller approximations! Have you heard this before recently? Watch closely for intention behaviour that tells you the dog has the right idea.

Once a dog offers up a behaviour that is in the right direction, if you don't catch that and Mark it, they think, "Oh, I guess that's not it" and now the dog will not offer up that line of thought again soon. Much of what the dog offers initially is not easily recognized by the handler as something worth reinforcing.

For instance, let's say I am teaching the dog on hand signals to go from Down to Sit to Down. If the dog is in a Down and I give the Sit hand signal, and I see the dog's foot twitch, I would get right in there and say something encouraging, "Good job!" and then help them get up into the Sit. I won't reinforce that foot twitch more than a couple of times, I would expect the dog to have the confidence then to try to get into the Sit on her own. The more you can catch these tiny intention behaviours though, the quicker the work goes and the more the dogs confidence grows, too.

Maybe Your Timing is Always a Little Late

This can be very discouraging. I see this often in Agility. The handler is a little late, the dog gets it wrong, the handler gets disgusted and looks disappointed and the dog just cannot figure out where this all went south. He made his best guess and even though the wrong course was the handler's fault, the dog feels confused and frustrated.

Even if the handler is disappointed in THEIR OWN handling, the dog still might think it is his fault.

All of these issues cause the dog to feel frustrated and if this happens over and over, after a bit, the dog just says, you know, this isn't so interesting. The dog's confidence erodes and he gets slower and slower and the error rate causes the handler more disappointment.

rr-is-your-dog-bored-2-256x466pxYou can see this cycle, too, right? Even if you are late and it goes wrong, so what? Keep your attitude up and look for something the dog is doing right. Make the exercise easier or break it down into smaller steps so you both get some success you can build on.

So, You See! It's All in the Training

My dogs love competition-style heeling, which can actually be very demanding and tiring for dogs. And they love it because I make it fun and interesting. They beg to work and are eager to "show off" their training at every possible opportunity. Even when it is inconvenient to me! Like offering to High Five the UPS guy is not helpful. First of all, the UPS guy has no clue what is going on, and is also often carrying packages, so cannot see the dog who has stopped in front of him and has her paw raised in anticipation.

I break it down into very very tiny steps. I keep the reinforcement rate high, but stay away from a Fixed Reinforcement Schedule. I keep the reinforcement very random. I use a variety of reinforcers - games, toys, treats.

I work hard to get the work itself to be safe and fun. Once the dog makes that association, you are IN!