As we progress through the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are spending a lot more time with their dogs, in many cases this is great news, but not all.
First, let us agree that too much of ANYTHING is a bad thing, just as bad as not enough in some cases. An example is drinking water.
If you do not drink enough water, there are health risks and if you did not drink anything at all, you can die. The same happens of you drink too much water. May people have never heard of Water Intoxication, in which too much water can cause health problems, even death.
So, let’s look first at what benefits we can get from this extra time, many of us seem to have.
This is a great time to improve or develop a better relationship with your dog, now to some that may be hanging on the couch watching movies, and whilst that is OK, this is not going to do much for your relationship.
I wanted to give you straight up 5 things that you can easily do to give your relationship with your dog a boost!
Dogs need food every day, so this provides us with an opportunity to create a currency that we can use to motivate and reinforce behaviours in our dogs.
This is not new thinking of course but, instead of feeding your dog a bowl of food and trying to reward with super tasty (probably unhealthy) treats, try separating your dog’s meal into 3 portions.
Depending on how much time you have, you can feed 1 or 2 of the portions in a bowl, with a few hours apart and the remaining portions from your hand.
When I say your hand, I mean as a reward for behaviour you like. Sit, drop, come, bed, crate etc right now it does not matter too much, but you are creating a “do good things – get good things” relationship.
Many dogs that stay with us for board and rehab gain all their food from hand by working. More regular feeding speeds up the metabolism, creates more hunger and more drive for the food.
This approach is using the dog’s daily meals as a reinforcement rather than treats on top of the daily meal, which the dog can live without.
It is important that your dog is eating both quality food and the correct amount of food to maintain the correct weight.
I feed and recommend a complete raw diet and I have written a raw feeding guide here if you need help. (http://k9pro.com.au/raw-feeding-made-easy/)
2 Don’t “show the money”
Many people have a problem in which, if they don’t have food in their hand visibly, their dog will not respond to cues.
I don’t want to get too technical here but, the food or the toy, if that is the reward you want to use, should be the reinforcement for the behaviour, for this to happen, the reward must occur after the behaviour.
Now when people hold the food in front of their dogs face to get their dog to respond, the food can become the cue, and when there is no cue, there of course is no behaviour.
The cue needs to be verbal or visual (such as a hand signal), not physical in most cases. Once the dog hears the cue (sit), displays the behaviour (he or she sits), he or she can gain the reinforcement (reward).
So you may have found yourself in the position already that your dog needs to see the food to do the work, but continuing down this path only strengthens (reinforces) the food is the cue, so if you ever want to be rid of this, the faster you stop this, the faster it will be gone.
Here is something to try, pop a dozen pieces of food into a snap lock bag and pop this in your pocket. If your dog see’s you, they are sneaky, that’s ok. Don’t give any for a while, just go about your business.
At some stage later, when you think your dog will come if you call, in other words he or she is not highly distracted for example.
So, your dog comes and your hands are empty, he or she gets to you and THEN you pull out a food treat and give one then one right after.
Your dog is surprised and delighted at this outcome, so he hangs around you like COVID!
Just ignore this as your dog is hoping for more food. When he or she settles elsewhere call again and when he or she gets to you, then get out the food and hand over one then a second piece.
Repeat again and when you call your dog and he or she runs really fast to you, now you know your dog is responding to a verbal cue (come!) and responding and your reinforcing that recall.
3 Up the ante
When you have run the above and your dog is racing to you for the treat he or she has not seen, allow your dog to get to you and look at you for the treat. NOW, give a sit cue.
Your dog expecting the reward will sit and now you get the food out of your pocket and give it to your dog.
Now the sit cue is becoming the word sit, rather than show the food.
4 Control the outcome
There are loads of, lets call them “unofficial rules” of dog training that have been around forever, and one of those is “do not call a dog that won’t come”.
When I started out, this sounded strange because how would I know if a dog wouldn’t come, un less I called him and he didn’t? But being more pro active, the best way would be to control the outcome.
In this exercise, you will be drawing on the first three parts of my 5 things to boost your relationship exercises.
So, you have a dog that has been hand fed at least once a day and is eating the rest of their food in two separate portions, couple of hours apart. Your dog is responding to verbal cues now because you have stopped showing the money.
Now, what we want to do is start attaching a longline to your dogs collar every time your dog is off leash, yes even in the back yard when you are there.
Don’t leave unsupervised dogs dragging leashes or lines.
Now get busy doing something in your yard whilst your dog is busy doing something else. Then walk over the end of the long line and pick it up, give a recall cue and if your dog comes, produce some food when they do. If your dog does not come, reel your dog in via the line and reward just the same.
After doing this several times, change the rules to read “if you come when called I will reward you, if you don’t, I will reel you in and no reward”.
As time goes by, you will see your dog becoming more reliable on the recall exercise and less use of the long line would be needed.
The idea is to get away from calling your dog to you and your dog choosing not to come. Take this program to the park and anywhere else and practice a “have to” recall.
5 Quality time vs quantity time
Dogs love quality time and get complacent when they have loads of your time just hanging around. This is why it is a very good idea to crate train your dog.
Crate training is setting aside a space specifically so your dog can relax, remain off duty from guard duty, not worry about what is going on in the home and just chill.
It also gives them time apart from you whilst you are at home, so that the time you dedicate to your dog will be quality time.
The crate should be conditioned with reward, food treats, feed your dog in the crate, praise your dog when in the crate etc. Chews and bones fed in crate too will mean your dog will love the crate.
Don’t close the door too soon making your dog feel trapped, give it some time and work towards this.
Dogs that are crate trained in this manner love their crates, they can switch off and forget things for a while and feel secure. Placing your dog in the crate before your dog does something you don’t like will prevent them rehearsing this behaviour you don’t like.
If you add these 5 simple things to your dog’s life, you will see quite a change in your dog’s responsiveness, relationship and value for you.
Now at the start I did say too much of anything can be bad, and there is a potential for things to go pear shaped after things go back to normal.
What can go wrong
Let’s say you are now working from home or out of work and at home, almost 24/7.
You make use of this time to hang out with your dog. Your dog seems to love the newfound company and you might say you and your dog are becoming, inseparable.
Inseparable in dog behaviour usually leads to some form of separation anxiety.
You spent a few months at home during the out of work period, stayed at home due to social isolation and now the world has come back online, you have a job and seeing all your friends again…
Your dog may not be able to cope with this, but, you can future proof your dog by spending some time with your dog and sometime apart.
My dogs are crate trained, they expect to spend some time with me, some time in the crate, some time alone in the back yard and sometime with the other dogs in the back yard.
If I adjust these ratios when I am holiday for example, there will be no problems when I am back at work, but if I stop crating my dogs because I have more free time, then when I go back to work, they will be out of their routine and likely develop some undesirable behaviours whilst adjusting.
You may benefit from a routine like this; if you get up in the morning and let your dog/s into the back yard to toilet, leave them there for a couple of hours. Then bring them in and perhaps spend an hour with them, or even two. Then back outside for an hour then inside to the dog crate for 2 hours.
Then out of the crate for a walk etc.
This random access your dog has to you will increase the quality time value without becoming inseparable.
I envisage a lot of dogs barking, escaping and displaying signs of separation anxiety such as more barking, destructive behaviours and anxious feelings when the world kicks back to normal.
You can avoid these problems and still enjoy some extra time with your dog during this time by just being a little more planned out than not.
Dogs form habits quickly and they are harder to break than form. If you make changes to your dogs routine, make them over a week or two rather than overnight.
If you have spent 24/7 with your dog and have come to realise that this was not the best idea, crate train your dog and over a couple of weeks, reduce the 24/7 slowly to a more manageable expectation.
Big changes inspire big reactions.
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