Trainers often distinguish between pet dogs and sports dogs. A pet dog is a dog whose only job is to be a pet. A buddy. A friend. A loyal companion and family member. A sports dog, on the other hand, has a very specific job: she is supposed to do well in her owner’s chosen field of competition – agility, obedience, nosework, tracking, herding … Dogs can have all kinds of jobs, and successful sports dog handlers usually focus on one or two of these options and dedicate a major part of their spare time to them.
Rumor has it that being a pet dog is easy and doesn’t require any training at all. Few things could be further from the truth! The typical pet dog is a family member, integrated into her humans’ life as much as possible. Human lives are pretty complex, and so are the behaviors required of a family dog!
Sports behaviors are trained specifically for the ring. The rules are clear, and you know what distractions to expect. Pet dog behaviors, on the other hand, are trained for all kinds of situations: living in the house, riding in a car, interacting with people and other dogs, socializing at the dog park, chilling under the coffee shop table, riding public transportation, playing with children, walking in the city, hiking in the mountains. Being a pet dog requires a lot of flexibility and great generalization skills. Often, a pet dog is expected to be mellow and relaxed during the week, and up for adventures on the weekend. He is expected to be social and friendly with all people and dogs, but not so friendly that he knocks over children or grandparents during a happy greeting. She is are expected to keep the leash loose, no matter how exciting the environment, to come when called, no matter what the distraction, and to be cuddly and low-maintenance, yet active and wiggly when it’s time to play. She is are also supposed to be cute, bark as little as possible, and don’t chew on inappropriate objects.
Being a good pet dog is not an easy job!
The good news is that having a good pet dog can add significantly to a human’s quality of life: you’re never lonely, even when you are alone. You have a hiking partner. You have someone to pet when you’re sad, an ice-breaker when meeting new people, and a conversation topic at every party. (“You won’t believe what my dog did today! She …”)
The bad news is that it’s hard to train a pet dog to fulfill all these expectations! Attending puppy class at your local dog training club won’t cut it – after all, you want good behavior at home and in everyday life, not just in the training building.
The good news is that there is a simple trick that might significantly improve your dog’s behavior and your relationship with her – and it doesn’t even require a lot of effort. It might not make her perfect, but it will help!
We tend to see the bad rather than the good. As a result, dogs get yelled at more often than they get rewarded: you catch your dog chewing up your shoes and tell her “No!” However, you don’t reward her for chewing on her Nylabone. You get upset when she ignores you when you call, but take it for granted when she comes. You are mad at her when she pulls, but don’t even notice when the leash is loose.
So here’s the trick:
For the next two weeks, don’t feed your dog’s dinner from a bowl. Give her her usual breakfast before you leave for work in the morning. Measure out her dinner, and fill your pockets to make sure it’s always handy. Your job is to feed your dog his entire dinner portion as a reward for things you like. Make an effort to catch her being good! Does your dog not jump up when you come home? That’s worth praise, pets, and food! Does she settle on her mat while you have dinner rather than beg at the table? Get up a few times during your meal, walk over and drop a piece of dinner kibble on her bed! Does she sit politely and make eye contact to get you to pet her or open the door? Praise and treat her! When you walk her, does she occasionally make eye contact? Praise and feed every single occasion! Let her know how happy this makes you! Does she come in from the yard when you call? That’s worth a cookie or two! Does she only bark once or twice when there’s a disturbing sound outside? Go feed her; that’s great! Does she greet the delivery person with a friendly tail weg? Praise and treat! Does she allow you to clip her nails? That’s worth at least one cookie for every nail!
If there’s still food left in the end of the day, feed it from her bowl, and make a mental note to make an even bigger effort to catch her being good tomorrow! With every day, you’ll catch her being good more often, and you’ll run out of kibble sooner and sooner. After two weeks of using her dinner to reward good behavior, compare your relationship and and your dog’s behavior to what you started out with. How did it change?
For more tips and tricks on raising the “perfect” pet, check out my Perfect Pet class, starting October 1st at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.