As a behaviour professional adopting a new dog, I decided to write a series on my own experiences to help people on a similar journey to settling a new life friend. I hope I help those aspiring to get a new dog, to see how incredible a rescued dog can be. For Part 1 on Bringing a new dog into your home, read my first post in the series. Find Part 2 regarding home management here.
Many pet guardians think of training as a burden, a task or chore that requires more time and effort than a day allows. There may be a few people who would shy away from the effort I invest into management and prevention, but even more so into teaching what I do want my dog to know. The thing is, there are hundreds of ways to stuff up or get things wrong when you don’t know your way around a new environment. You can change that from day one of your dog coming home – building a strong foundation from the bottom up will create an impressive, resilient structure later on. As I have said previously, I know I would much rather invest in my dog doing stuff I like, than harass, nag, correct or reprimand – a vicious circle leading to being frustrated and unsatisfied with your canine companion, and often, deteriorating a relationship before it has begun. No thanks!
The first day at your new job, you would be feeling a little on edge as you get to know your colleagues and start to develop relationships (trust accounts) with the people around you. What feels pretty good is when you are starting to learn new tasks and you get acknowledged for a good job, or things work really well and it pays off for you. I have had the pleasure of working in several workplaces where I had managers who never told off or reprimanded staff, but instead looked for efforts and rewarded those. That is the kind of person I want to work for. That is a very skilled expert in how things work and how to teach others. That is a very skilled workplace leader. I absolutely love this example of how it applies to healthy human learners and should be applied to canine learners.
That is how I will be applying the teaching of new tasks to Baloo. If things go wrong, I need to reevaluate my own teaching, and whether I have rushed forward into a harder level than my dog is currently comfortable with, or perhaps I am clumsy in my communication. I am constantly aware that I am not speaking the same language as my dog, and I have to make the effort to help him understand what I am looking for.
When I first brought Baloo into the kitchen he attempted to jump up to put his front feet onto the counter to investigate (known as counter-surfing). Immediately I called his attention to me and moved away from the kitchen. This wasn’t ‘bad’ behaviour. Possibly he has a history of successfully nabbing food from counter tops in a home prior to mine (in which case he’s just doing what works), or he may be investigating his new environment and following his nose. Mostly, this was information for me. Counter surfing is a very hard behaviour to fade out once it has started, so it is better to prevent it in the first place.
Staying out of the kitchen: Station training – prevent counter surfing
It is highly likely a new dog will try surfing the counter. I recall one foster dog I had, who was on lead and learning about sitting on a mat while I prepared dinner on his second night with me. This night I had ordered take-out, and distracted by the phone ringing for one moment, I came back to find foster-dog yomping down a piping hot cheese naan as quick as he could, package and all. Emotion gripped me. I took myself into the other room, shut the door, and had a moment silently screaming at myself. That was 100% my stuff up. That was not the dog’s fault.
What do I want instead of being in the kitchen? I’d like Baloo to wait on his mat, known to behaviour professionals as a DRI (Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviour) which means being on your mat, is incompatible with being in the kitchen as well. There are plenty of examples of when a behaviour is troubling you, there will be a polar opposite behaviour that the dog can’t be doing at the same time, that you can teach in the unwanted behaviours’ place. Examples of this include – a dog nipping at ankles is taught to hold a toy in her mouth instead; a dog who jumps up is taught to go to a mat; a dog barking at the doorbell might be taught to fetch a toy instead.
Teaching a dog to station on a mat outside of the kitchen or dining room is 50% about teaching what you do want and 50% about rewarding good choices. Once your dog knows the mat is the place to be when someone is in the kitchen, catching your dog making the choice equals rewards. If he can see a choice he makes pays off, rather than always being told what to do, than he is going to make more good choices. His good choices reinforce our growing relationship, removing the likelihood that I will be frustrated by any mistakes.
Once Baloo is positioned on his mat, I toss a treat every 10 – 15 seconds (you need good aim, or deliver the treat straight to them to avoid a dog running everywhere). To start out, I have a high rate of rewards. The time is gradually increased as he learns to remain in position. I have stayed nearby him, as at this stage I am only teaching him a “Duration” – stay on the mat for an extended period. I start to stretch out those intervals between treats to 30 – 45 seconds, every now and again giving a treat at 5 or 7 seconds. Baloo got it quickly – being here pays off!
Teaching him where to be when things are happening in the kitchen, particularly if dog breakfast or dinner is being prepared, means we don’t have to address mistakes made because they are being prevented. Baloo learns, someone is in the kitchen – I go on my mat.
Next I taught Baloo if I walk away and he stays on his mat – he gets rewarded. The important step is I expect less duration and reward more frequently as I step away and return, I am only focusing on me being at a distance. That didn’t take him long at all. If Baloo got up to follow me, I did not tell him he was wrong, I just set him back up on his mat and expected a little less next time. I would walk a shorter distance away, and keep the interval short. Once we had that down pat, the mat really had a big reinforcement history. That means, it is highly likely to pay off to be on that mat, and he’s starting to think that is a much better option than being anywhere else. If Baloo saw any of us go towards the kitchen bench and he actively put himself on his mat – he got treated immediately. Good boy, good choice! It’s not always about us telling a dog what to do and ordering them around, its about setting them on a trajectory to make good decisions on their own without always having to ask. We are still the one responsible for having made that happen, if we have arranged the set up and paychecks well enough.
Within three days in his new home, Baloo happily lay on his mat (or put himself in his crate) to nap peacefully while the family prepared a meal or sat down to eat a meal. It was that quick.
Here is Baloo choosing to be on his mat when he sees we are busy in the kitchen, and being asked to be on his mat.
Here is the video of Baloo in his first week with me, this teaches him impulse control (staying on the mat & waiting for food), and he associates good things with the crate by being fed in there. I was using a Kyjen slow feeder bowl with some kibble as an enrichment activity here – it keeps him busy for a little while.
Crates are such a helpful tool in creating a safe place for your dog to retreat and a no-supervision necessary area for you to trust your new companion in while you are distracted. I set up the crate for Baloo on day 2 of his stay, and had a plan that I did not need to use it or even shut the door to it for the first few days. Once I had assembled the crate, which is big enough for a person, I jokingly sat in it. He followed me in, tail wagging, and plonked down with his chin on my leg – then went to sleep. Well that was a good start (not a step you need to repeat, and never let a child enter a dog’s crate – they should understand it is for dog’s only). At least he’s associating good things, I am aiming for this to be his safe place. A side note that a crate should be comfortable, big enough to lay out flat, stand up and turn around. Any crate I have is typically laden with rotated toys, long lasting chews, and water if leaving for a short period.
Baloo had a breakfast and dinner meal that day in his crate (in a Kong and slow feeder bowl). The door remained open. Throughout day 2 and 3, I celebrated quietly as Baloo started to opt to take himself in the crate for a rest. He had three choices of dog beds in the living room while tv watching time was happening, and he would frequently choose his crate. Breakfast, dinner and enrichment via pigs ears/veggie ears/stuffed toys were all provided inside the crate.
I did two sessions where I held my hand against the back of the crate and asked him to nose target. He was reinforced for entering the crate and targeting. A few repetitions and I faded the target, instead marking and rewarding him for entering the crate and then putting the cue “in your crate” to it. At this stage I still haven’t shut the door. When he is really comfortable I will start shutting the door – at first, if I see he goes to the door, I immediately open it, that way he won’t feel trapped. A crate is never a punishment, it is a place to feel safe, and a place to prevent unwanted behaviour happening elsewhere in the house when you cannot actively supervise, somewhere that enrichment and sleeping happens.
I don’t need to Baloo to be in the crate much at the moment. But when I do need to go out and leave him alone for a short errand or while I need to be in another room, I will be able to do so, leaving an enrichment toy and things to do, knowing he will be safe and prevented from being destructive in the house while he is still settling in and can’t be supervised.
When you first bring a dog home, you are going to want to keep them entertained and occupied a lot. It’s a challenge to actively supervise your new dog while you are in the shower, while you prepare and have dinner (unless they are on a station/mat), or while you are doing the dishes. I opt for Kongs at these times.
Most people probably don’t consider doing much more with a toy beyond choosing it from the shelf and bringing it home to their dog. I can’t get enough of Kongs. They are my go to dog toy and a must have for any foster dog or adoptee. Though, I frequently have clients tell me their dog gave up on their food dispensing toys or Kongs because their dog didn’t know how to use them.
The first time I gave Baloo a Kong filled with food, he sniffed it and moved away. I immediately began engaging him with it, tipping it so that dry food scattered out and he gained at least some interest. I helped him understand it was easy to make treats come out. He then noticed there was cottage cheese on the inside and gave a couple of half-hearted licks, before again giving up. I felt a small amount of defeat, after living with a dog who would do anything for a stuffed Kong and work at them for an hour or so. Having watched different dogs smartly slam the Kong down to get the food to spill out, I felt that was not Baloo – yet.
When I first stuffed Baloo’s Kong, I aimed to make it easy (see a video on different levels of difficulty for Kongs here). Once he got that food fell out quite easily, I put very high value stuff in, smeared on the inside and some loose that would tumble out. The first time he used it, he also had a bit of a try picking at the rubber, which I then gently took the Kong away or switched him for another toy. He was very quick to learn that playing gently, and licking was the way to go. This prevents a dog ending up learning to pick chunks of rubber off. Once I knew he was engaging appropriately and very interested in the toy, I then gradually made it harder (find good recipes here). By the second day he was planted face first, nose jammed up against the rubber toy, in enrichment ecstasy. He has been a self-proclaimed Kong fan ever since. Now I can give him meals, frozen stuffing and long lasting recipes that keep him occupied for some time. I can also have peace of mind while I am distracted from watching him.
This is what a key step to a newly adopted dog success story looks like:
Simple right? My advice is to teach rescue dogs (or any dog for that matter!..especially puppies) how to use a Kong if they don’t know how to use it already as soon as you can. Have multiple stuffed kongs on hand, ready to go. I make up 6 or 7 a couple of nights a week and put them in the freezer. Kongs not only keep them occupied and mentally stimulated, they release feel good hormones that promote calm behaviour and the ability to settle. So throw out your rescue dog’s food bowl and engage their minds.
Baloo is regularly kept busy through stimulating games, training sessions and toys that engage his brain. Training new behaviour tires out a dog twice as well as half an hour of exercise, so it is a very healthy addition to a daily walk in order to keep those energetic dogs in a calmer state of mind. In summary, teaching a station to a mat, crate training and using a kong are three key strategies to a happy newly adopted dog, and a happy you. You can achieve a lot in just four days of having your new companion, go ahead and make an investment in good behaviour.
Stay tuned for the next installment of my series on Baloo – introducing him to our other dogs and the training journey. His training progress is inspiring to highlight shelter dog possibilities!
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© Jade Fountain 2015