Dog’s Eye View: Music to my ears
April 6, 2018
Ahh. Spring is here. The buzz-chirp sounds of red-winged black birds and the sweet courting music of robins is filling the air with hope and renewal. The trees are beginning to bud out, and spring bulbs are adding a fresh coat of color to our environment.
I've been observing that my dog Ruby is showing an increased interest in the emerging sounds of spring. She will go out on the deck and stop to listen to the new bird exchange that is occurring. The music and presence of people venturing outside gives her pause to ponder if what she is seeing or hearing is safe or acceptable.
The neighborhood dogs are spending more time outdoors, too. I can hear them signaling with a single bark or two asking, "Is anybody out there?" And, of course, Ruby is quick to answer, "Over here!"
The transition from homebound and windows closed to allowing all the outside sounds and smells inside takes time to process and accept as normal. If your dog barks at the neighbors who spent plenty of time in their yard last fall, reassure him there is no need to tell you over and over "Somebody's out there."
This transition will only last a short time if you acknowledge his concern and give him something better to do. Or, better yet, spend a few minutes outside with him and do a 5-minute training session filled with yummy rewards for quick compliance.
Spring is a perfect time to review outside training skills. And it sets an expectation that time outside with you is a conversation. Take your time. Review at a level that spells success. I will play a game called "Watch the world go by" to desensitize Ruby to people walking by the house.
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We start at a distance that elicits the lowest arousal. Since dogs, as well as humans, have a personal safety space, we want to start when she notices but is not reacting. I will say "check it out," and she is rewarded for looking, but not barking. Again, this requires excellent timing of reinforcement. If she gets a bark out, then my reinforcement schedule is too slow.
Here's what it looks like. Dog/person comes into view. I immediately say, "check it out," and, as soon as she looks (nanosecond timing), I say “Good girl!” and reward her with the best, most stinky treats possible, up to five treats in a row. This is called a jackpot. If she looks again, I repeat the praise and reinforce. We will practice until the dog/person is out of view. If only one dog/person walks by, that's OK. Don't dive into the deep end of the pool before you learn how to swim. Stop on that first success. Go back inside and give your dog a chance to absorb what just happened. It takes time to change a behavior that has become a habit. I learned the "check it out" game from a book called "Control Unleashed" by Leslie McDevitt. It's a great book to have in your dog library. Lot's of great information on teaching impulse control to an overly active or reactive dog.
With music in the air and more outside activities planned for Spring to Fall, get off to a great start by reviewing your trainer skills and take some time to refresh your outdoor relationship with your family dog. Happy Spring, everyone!
A side note for our regular readers: Our column will now appear on the first and third Saturdays of each month.
Laura Tyler is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer with more than 30 years of experience and has earned Associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants as well as Certified Nose Work Instructor through the National Association of Canine Scent Work™. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC here in Northwest Colorado.