Happy New Year! Christmas is a joyful, but busy time, and then we are often left with the January Holiday Hangover. It’s cold outside, it gets dark early in the evenings and stays dark later in the mornings, and the reality of facing a long, harsh winter is upon us. It’s not difficult to feel cooped up and before long, cabin fever begins to set in—for us, and our pups.
Thankfully, January is also a time for resolutions and goal setting. And it just so happens that around here, January is Train Your Dog Month. What better goals to set and what better way to help your dog burn some mental energy than by learning some new skills?
Dog training is often thought of as an activity one does within the first six months of a pup’s life, and then is largely set by the wayside. But learning can, and SHOULD be, a lifelong process for us and our dogs. Cues that seem like simple tricks can actually have a profound impact on life with your pet, and can lead to easier handling, less stress, and a better system of management in their every day life.
This month, we would like to focus on three cues in particular—a down-stay on a mat, a hand-target, and a “wait” command. These three cues can be used a variety of ways in your pet’s life at home, but they are especially useful for us in management your pet within the clinic setting when they come in for an examination, a hospitalized-stay, or even a simple weight check.
The Down-Stay or Go to Your Place
Why it’s useful: Teaching your dog to go to a bad/mat/place when asked, gives them a job to do and a sense of security. This trick is particularly useful during dinner time to avoid your pet sneaking table scraps, when someone comes to the door, or when you need to complete a task around the house without their “help”. Within the clinic setting, this can be a useful cue for prompting dog’s to step on to the scale and wait, or for giving them a task to do while waiting for their appointment.
What you will need: Yummy treats, a non-skid mat, a previously-learned “down” command.
How we teach it:
- Choose a treat your dog finds especially delicious. Set yourself up for success by ensuring your pet is hungry, and therefore likely to work for food, when you begin. Toss a couple of treats on to the mat and encourage your pet to begin to show interest in the mat. When your pet places a foot on to the mat, mark that moment with a happy “Yes!” and toss another treat on to the mat.
- Once your pet is willingly and happily walking on to the mat, start asking for a down, or wait until your dog offers a “down” and then mark again with a “Yes!” and reward.
- Start adding the cue word to the exercise once your dog reliably starts walking on to the mat and offering a down. Something like, “Place” is easy and yet specific. Begin rewarding your dog only intermittently, and start to increase the time they are on the mat in a down position. Once your dog is able to stay reliably on the mat for a longer duration, you can begin to add distractions.
The Hand Target
Why it’s Useful: a hand target teaches your dog that moving toward or away from an object is a positive thing, and encourages them to focus on the person asking for the target. It also allows for a transfer of trust, as a guest, friend, or veterinary professional may ask for a hand target, and your dog will have a previous foundation of positive association with this request. Within the clinic, we can use this command to ask your pets to focus on you while we examine them, or to introduce things that may cause worry, like a stethoscope or thermometer.
What you will need: a hungry dog, yummy treats
How we teach it:
- Extend your hand out toward your pet, a few inches from their face. Mark any movement or interest in your hand with a “Yes!” and drop a treat for them. If you’re having trouble getting your pet to show interest, you can bridge the gap by spreading a small amount of peanut butter on your hand, and extending your hand while saying the word “touch” as their nose connects with your palm.
- Once your pet is reliably tapping their nose to your hand in exchange for a treat, add the cue. Extend your hand, request “touch” and reward when they make contact.
- Begin adding distance and obstacles as your pet gains confidence. Ask them to hop on to furniture to touch, or to have to walk through your legs. Enlist friends and family members to practice with them as well.
A Long Wait
Why it’s Useful: Teaching your dog to stop moving until released has countless applications in their everyday life. From ensuring they won’t bolt out the door when it’s opened, to helping them understand that they cannot be underfoot while you are walking down stairs, it’s one of the most useful and yet most basic commands you may ever teach. Within the clinic, there are instances when your pet needs to hold still—either during a physical examination, blood draws, other diagnostics, or even while you’re trying to use your bank card at checkout.
What you will need: a hungry dog, yummy treats, a leash
How we teach it:
- Start with your dog having a leash attached to their collar. You do not need to hold the leash, but it will help you guide your dog back to position if they become distracted during the exercise.
- Wait until your dog is in a comfortable position and firmly and gently ask “wait”. Wait only a few seconds before marking with a “Yes!” and rewarding if your pet manages to hold still as requested.
- If your pet is having trouble sitting still for even a few moments, move to a less distracting area, or wait until they are feeling calm and hungry. Set them up for success.
- Slowly begin to increase the duration your pet is still for. Once they are able to remain still for a significant duration, you can begin to add distractions.
- Begin to add in physical handling to the exercise once they have been able to demonstrate knowledge of your request with distractions. Check inside their ears, mouths, and lift/hold their feet. Reward your pet for remaining still after each part of the exercise.
- Start adding in a release cue – something like “okay!” lets them know that it’s okay to move and relax now.
These three simple exercises can have a huge impact on life with your dog! Giving them a task to complete during their vet visits makes for a smoother appointment, and reduces the amount of stress of anxiety they may feel. Happy training!