Teach Your Dog to Behave in Public
I was surprised when my article (My Dog Listens In Obedience Class, But Not At Home!) was met with the cry of “I have the opposite problem! My dog will listen, but only at when we’re home. He never listens at obedience class.” I assumed (never assume, I know…) the obedience class instructors would have covered that for the students – it’s a really common problem. Based on the response I got from readers, though, I thought this article might be able to help.
What’s Different In Public?
It’s not unusual for dogs to lose their minds when they leave home. Home is, well, sorry to say it folks, but: kind of boring. It’s the same old, same old. Yawn. But outside the yard? Now that’s exciting! Different surroundings are exciting! Different surroundings are distracting!
Here’s a good example of how even the tiniest of changes can profoundly impact our own behavior. I love Wegmans grocery stores (for the deprived folks who don’t have a Wegmans nearby, it’s a high-end, have-everything, destination kind of grocery store) and I have “my” Wegmans. A few weeks ago, I was outside my usual territory and needed to grocery shop. No problem, there was a Wegmans nearby and, well, Wegmans is Wegmans, right?
Yes. And no. Yes, it was Wegmans. The signage was the same and the displays were similar. But the store was set up slightly different than “my” Wegmans. Instead of the bakery being off to the left like it is at my usual store, it was on the right. No big deal, I figured. Groceries are groceries. Well, no. I realized after I’d gotten home that I forgot half the things I needed. All because that slight alteration was enough to throw me off. What seems like a simple thing can actually be quite distracting. Distracting enough to throw off even us “higher beings.”
So, let’s not label the dogs’ distraction at obedience class as “silly,” or as “blowing you off.” No, it’s real, that distraction! And distraction (or excitement) means that performance will suffer. That dog that always sits, no matter what? It’ll look like he has selective hearing. The dog that never jumps, he’ll have his paws all over people. Not because he’s dumb, stubborn, or dominant – just because he’s distracted!
Strategies to Help
What’s a good dog owner to do when his dog is a maniac in dog obedience class? A good obedience instructor will implement one or more of these strategies:
- Use something to help block your dog’s view of the other dogs (put you in an adjacent room, use a sheet-covered ring gate, etc.).
- Add distance between your dog and the other dogs and people.
- Suggest you bring really delicious treats to class. No Milk-Bones, people! Real human food like chicken, cheese, hot dogs, etc. Don’t be stingy!
- Reward your dog for anything and everything that’s not bad. Your dog is silent? Click and treat! Yes, even if he didn’t look at you, click him for not barking (if barking is an issue in class). Find something your dog can do and click and treat him for it!
- Get your dog to class a little early so he has a chance to sniff and explore before other dogs arrive.
Teach Your Dog
Remember that dogs need to be taught how to do a task before it’s fair to ask them to do that task. This sounds so simple, yet I work with people who keep saying “sit, sit, sit, SIT!” When I ask them if their dog knows how to sit, they say “No, but if you say it enough, he’ll eventually do it.” Sorry, guys, but that dog doesn’t really know sit. Teach your dog how to do something in a quiet, distraction-free environment.
Keys to Success
Progress gradually. After you’ve taught your dog what he needs to know and he’s aced it at home, it’s time to take that new knowledge out in the world. Here’s where you play a huge part in your dog’s success: you have to ramp up the distractions in teeny-tiny increments. The responsibility for your dog’s success falls squarely on you at this point. Set your dog up to succeed!
Reward generously. Use top-shelf food – I’m talking ham, cheese, steak, chicken. No dry dog food. Don’t even think of using dog treats of the grocery store shelves, filled with artificial colors and animal by-products. Small, pea-sized pieces of human food are much better for your dog and way less expensive.
Keep your distance. Start off by asking your dog to do some easy tricks as soon as you exit the car. Don’t wait until you get to class to start working with your dog. That’s way too close to other dogs and people! Remember, you’re looking to make your dog successful!
Introduce requirements one at a time. It’s unfair to ask your dog for a sit-stay in a distracting environment unless you’ve already taught him how to (1) sit, (2) sit for a long time, (3) sit while something is distracting him, and (4) sit while you’re away from your dog. Each of those skills needs to be taught separately before you ask your dog to do all of them at once. Remember me at Wegmans – only the layout was different, yet I forgot half my groceries for goodness sake. Distractions are hard!
Learning to behave properly in class (anywhere in public, really) takes time. It takes effort. It takes persistence. It takes a good trainer – you! Be reasonable with your dog and ask him for only what you know he can do. Start in an easy location like your driveway, before you branch out to the local big box pet supply store. The more you teach your dog, the more places you’ll be able to go together. And isn’t that what having a dog is all about, in the end?