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"Help! My dog will not listen to me." Why off-leash reward-based training is the answer.

Updated: Mar 18

Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Lack of focus is a common problem for dog owners everywhere. Puppies or adult dogs can easily get into a pattern where they will listen only if they see value in it. In response, owners may have a knee-jerk reaction of correcting the dog for not listening, or keeping the dog on shorter leads and corrective collars to maintain control. We want focus, but it isn't a behavior that stands alone. I advocate for off-leash training dogs on the home property -- with safety measures in place -- so that we teach them to make good choices from the get-go with reward-based training. Often times when we need our dogs to listen and comply the most, they happen to NOT be on leash. The dog may have slipped out of his harness, rushed the crate door, is off-leash at a dog park, or is in a compromising situation where we have nothing other than the hope that our dogs are well-trained and will make good choices. With good off-leash training, we are able to give our dogs more freedom. (Just for the record, I am NOT a fan of walking dogs off leash in suburbia where they may end up approaching people and leashed dogs, but that is another blog article).

This boils down to three things that are interconnected:

1. Relationship between dog and owner/parent

2. Behavior patterns

3. Value transferred (or not) to performing the desired behaviors

4. Generalizing the behaviors in all environments

Let's start with the first part: Relationship. In all relationships, we often have certain expectations that the other party is not aware we have. Ever expect your significant other to call and check in when he/she is out late with friends? Remember the disappointed feeling when that did not happen? Likely, the other person was not aware of the expectation.

Is the behavior something we expected the dog should "know" but have not heavily taught? Or have we attempted to train a particular behavior and yet we are not getting the consistent results we expected?

"Relationship" is defined as the way in which two people or beings are connected with one another. So... in which ways are we connected with our dogs? Is our relationship with our dogs transactional, in which each of us does things for the other with expectation of payment? Do we occupy the same space but live mostly separate lives? Clients have vented countless times over the years at initial consults that their dog will only acknowledge their presence when they have food in hand. In these cases, sometimes people have given things our best efforts but have missed the necessary connection of emotion and daily routine that is necessary for a healthy, fulfilling relationship. Relationship is so much more than "Click"/"Yes!"/"Good Boy!" and then treat!

Believe it or not, much of dog behavior is about creating patterns. For example, try asking your dog for a "sit" before you will open the back door to go outside. Praise and reward the "sit" at the door every time for one week. At first, he may be very resistant to sitting because he does not understand the change in expectations. With praise, rewards, and encouragement, he will very likely begin to more readily offer the behavior. After a week or so, you are highly likely see him offer a "sit" at the door before you even ask for it. You will have created a behavior pattern.

We create patterns all the time in our own lives without even realizing it. Patterns help us to manage the amount of stress in our lives. We tend to keep the same behavior patterns from one day to the next as much as possible without realizing. We wake up and go to bed around the same times; eat/teeth-brushing/showering/makeup/dressing in a particular order the same way every day. Even down to the order in which we put on our clothes. We take the routes we are familiar with when driving places. We go out socially on certain nights and not others, and with certain people and not others. We like patterns and routine.

Dogs like routine, too. These are important for all creatures. Otherwise, we would experience frequent physiological flight/fight responses throughout each day as we encounter a barrage of unexpected events. These unexpected events can induce acute stress responses, which cause symptoms such as increased heart rate, sweating, dry mouth, and increased hearing and visual alertness. This takes a toll on the mind and body. However, with lots of patterns and routines, we can get through our days will less stress-inducing moments.

I like to create patterns inside the home with any new puppy or adult dog who is new to the home. I want my daily routines to be intertwined with each of my dogs' routines so that they are never tuning me out, and likewise, I am very aware of them throughout the day. It starts initially as frequent transactions. It starts by me asking them for a "sit" before every thing that they want from me. They are rewarded with a treat, as well as whatever life reward they were wanting, such as to go outside, to play, petting, etc. I honestly do not keep this up for very long. Only until the dog begins to realize that he possesses currency and begins offering this default behavior on his own for things without me asking for it. He has learned at this point that he can offer a "sit" to me at any time to indicate that he wants something from me. Given that our routines are intertwined, I am available to him and will notice this offered behavior. Most likely, I will give him what he wants -- unless it is a second breakfast or dinner! He learns that he can trust me, and that there is give/take in our relationship.

I like to create another behavior pattern of my dogs checking in with me throughout the day with eye contact. If our dogs are not focused on us within the home, they will not be focused on us outside where distractions are endless and novel. My life is intertwined with my dogs. When I eat, they are there with me. There are certain behavior expectations, but we do this together. Time spent in the yard for potty and play time is all done together as a family. Dogs can run and play in the yard, but we do it together. This helps to train and build focus early on in distracting environments. When we get ready for bed we brush teeth, go outside, and do our night time routine together. When it is time for sleep, we go to bed together as a family. They have freedom to do as they please within the home during the day, with access to toys, windows, play areas, and secluded dark places for napping. Even when they go off on their own, we all check on each other from time to time. I visit their secluded spots if I don't see them for a while to check in with them. They sometimes come and indicate to me that they want to play or do special training time with me because they know HOW to communicate this and feel comfortable to do so. After all, don't we get dogs to be our companions? The focus and communicative behaviors go both ways.

I do other training games and play with me dogs -- including play without toys -- to build our relationship. I limit training in young dogs to essential obedience and public access skills so we can create a framework of certain boundaries that they can live within while enjoying a certain level of independence. I do not want so much control that I have a dog who behaves as if he lacks freedom to be himself. I want a companion who is full of personality, and perhaps not perfectly behaved. I do not want a robot, and I do not want a slave/master type relationship. The games and play help build focus, trust, and impulse control, while maintaining drive for performance sports, and a certain level of independence.

Now, how do we transfer value in these behaviors to the outside world? Not by throwing them into the fire. I often hear, "Well, why aren't we training in this environment if this is the environment he needs to learn to deal with?" This is usually in reference to an environment that may be the absolutely MOST distracting environment the dog has ever encountered in his life. If I wanted to train someone to do an advanced calculus problem I would teach them algebra and trigonometry first. We have to gradually work up to our goals without being greedy and trying to have it all now. It just does not work that way in most cases. This takes patience and focus on the prize!

Once a dog is wonderful at performing behaviors in the home and on the home property, I take them out on calm, quiet walks and ask for the same behaviors. However, I treat it as if it is a new behavior that I am training. To the dog, it likely is. He is not expecting me to ask for it in that context, so his response time may be lagged. This is not our dogs ignoring us, but having trouble sorting through all the messages they are picking up from us and the environment around them. Being efficient with this while maintaining focus on us is a behavior we must train. Once he does what I ask, I reward with something high value. Over time, I increase the level of distractions. What is distracting for one dog may not be distracting for another, so you have to know your dog and read what he is communicating to you. Is he having a tough time focusing with all the people walking by on a busy block? Or could he care less about the cars, but is fixated on a couple dogs he sees playing nearby, or the scent of the rabbits and squirrels that inhabit the area?

For each of my dogs, the things most distracting to them are different despite them being the same breed. It has also taken them very different lengths of time to successfully work through high levels of distraction. Raise the criteria according to the dog in front of you, and make sure the reward is commensurate with the level of focus you are asking from him given the environment. Sometimes what is most distracting can be quite surprising! We get to know our dogs' personalities so well when we look at these details. If you need to use a mid-length leash at this point to comply with laws, the leash is for that purpose only. You don't need a leash for control or to evoke a behavior since you have trained and prepared for focus through distractions. This is a wonderful feeling!

Tighter physical control is not the answer to teaching a dog to work in distracting environments. Communication should always be two-way with our dogs where they have independence and choice, but we have taught them to make good choices. An on-going conversation of lives heavily intertwined. If you have this, you and your dog have an emotional tether binding you that is stronger than any leash!


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Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc (in Operations Management) is a fully certified dog behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). She believes the foundation of a good cross-species relationship is understanding the needs and normal behavior patterns of each dog as an individual, as he/she was bred to be. She enjoys helping humans and dogs communicate more effectively to create brilliant relationships with joy, purpose, and fulfillment for all species involved. She offers private consulting for serious dog behavior issues, obedience/manners, and agility training. Eileen developed a unique online course to help pet parents and trainers develop reliable snake avoidance behavior off-leash through positive reinforcement techniques. These techniques have been applied by trainers worldwide to teach dogs reliable avoidance of dangerous environmental hazards and off-leash property boundaries. She lives on a small ranch in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and their Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes.

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