Everyday Dog Training: Do you want Consistency? You need to Follow-Through!

I love hiking with my dogs on the open trail.  I also love it when I can make it a pack hike and share that time with others and their dogs.  It makes me happy when I see owners building on their relationship with their dog. And what better way to build on that personal relationship with your dog than with a pack walk or pack hike.

Last weekend Nanook and I went on a pack walk hosted by the Los Angeles Responsible Pit Bull Owners.  There were a variety of dog owners there each were working on specific issues they experienced with their dog.  At one point, we were standing around talking about tips and tricks while working with our dogs. I mention this because there was one owner that was completely frustrated with their dog. They were just about at wits end, and you could see the hurt and frustration in their face and body language.

When a different person walked the dog (one that was not the owner), the dog was fine. The dog walked at heel, with little pulling or need of correction.  The dog even sat on command for the non-owner.  However, with the owner, the dog's personality changed.  The dog became less attentive and its chance of performing the requested behavior was slim to none.  I thought that was an interesting change of behavior. Then it dawned on me,  there was no follow-through on the part of the owner.

Follow-Through? What does that mean exactly?

Webster's New Dictionary defines follow through as: (intransitive verb) meaning to press on, or continue forward in an activity or process to reach a foregone a conclusion.  Now apply this concept to training your dog. If you give a dog a command, you will continue forward in that command until the dog performs the behavior.  The action of following through on the command must be done each and every time.  This builds a habit to expect the behavior on the part of the owner and consistency on performing the behavior on the part of the pup.

How did it happen that the dog won't listen?

If the owner just "gives up" or pets the dog after repeating a command several times and the dog does not perform the behavior, the dog will learn that not performing is what it is supposed to do or that it is ok to not perform a command. Not demanding that the dog performs the behavior increases the chance that it will consistently push against or blatantly disregard the boundary that should have been set.

In essence, the pup's  inner dialogue might go something like this (only in dog language):
Owner:  "I said SIT... Sit ... SIT!!!"
Dog: "NOW? Hmmm..let me think, if I don't do it now, and keep standing, maybe they will give up and I won't have to do it."

I'm sure dogs don't really have an inner-dialog, but if they did, it might sound something like that.

The bottom-line, the dog only sits when THE DOG wants to sit, and not necessarily when THE OWNER wants the dog to sit.

Is there a fix?

The fix is simple yet complex (is there any other kind?).  In a nutshell, it means training.  I am not talking re-training for the DOG, but training for the OWNER. Why is that?  Because the owner needs to train themselves in the habit of NOT giving up and demanding that the requested behavior take place. 

Most times walking away from a stubborn dog becomes a habit.  And most times we are not even aware that it is happening because habits are done without thinking about them. We might think our dog is trained just because they aren't running around adrenalized and jumping on people, but is a dog really trained if they don't do what you ask them to do? Realizing, and then admitting you have a bad habit is one thing; breaking this habit is another.  It is HARD WORK (no kidding)...and it takes practice and patience. But I have full faith that you can do it!

Where do you start?

How about from the very beginning.  If you're dog has a habit of not listening, try starting from SIT. I just want to make clear that you have already tried to train your dog to formally sit, however because of inconsistencies, your dog questions the veracity of the command.

TIPS to try for a week (or 2):

Here are some tips to yourself into the habit of following-through and training your dog to perform:

  1. Try not to lavish your dog with loving words all the time. (I know it's DIFFICULT. But it's just for a week, right?) Loving words are a form of reward. You're not raising your voice and you're not expecting a behavior.  Who wouldn't want to hear someone speak to them in that way, regardless of language. Keep your words for rewards that result from good behavior.
  2. Do NOT pet your dog unless they are sitting or perform a command that you requested. Petting is a form of reward to your dog.  They WANT us to pet them.  And they behave in ways in order to be pet.  If your dog is excited when you get home, and you pet them when they jump up on you, you are basically reinforcing the fact that it is OK to a)jump up on you; and b) be excited. Wouldn't it be great if your dog could just sit and wait for you to pet it when you get home.  You CAN shape this behavior by only petting your dog AFTER they have calmed down from the excitement of your homecoming.
  3. Only say the command once. If you get in the habit of saying the command, let's say, three times, and the dog sits after the third time, the command is no longer SIT. It has evolved to become SIT SIT SIT.
  4. Use a hand signal. Dogs eyes gravitate to the treat hand. If you always give your treat from your right hand, they will look there.  Use that hand for a hand signal. (FYI, this is also why some trainers say to give treats from your other hand).
  5. When your dog comes to you, always ask them to sit and look at you. This becomes the dog's default behavior whenever they come to you. Some dogs get over excited and they want to stand.  Just be patient and wait for them to sit.  Then you can reward them with words or petting.
As you move through the basic commands:
  • Take the commands one at a time;
  • Don't move on to another command, until your dog is performing at a consistency that you are satisfied with;
  • Be Patient. If you feel like your patience is being tested, call it a day and wait until you feel better. It will build a better relationship with your dog. 
  • Remember, we want to treat our dogs, our best friends, with love and respect.

What works for your dogs? Have you used different tactics to encourage your dog to perform a behavior? Leave me a comment, I'd like to know!