Recently, one of my advanced classes took a field trip to a local park. Although it was pretty warm, there was a nice breeze and we were able to stay in the shade under the trees. We had a great time working on stay, leash walking, leave it, and other skills. About halfway through the class, however, we were joined by two pesky squirrels. They were running back and forth and playing on the ground between three large trees.
For one of the dogs in the class, a lab mix, this was much, much, much too exciting! He suddenly wanted nothing to do with his owner or with anything we were doing in class. He also had absolutely no desire for any of the yummy treats that she had with her.
The owner first tried moving the dog some distance away. However, he was still completely obsessed with the two silly squirrels. He would sort of walk with her, but he wasn’t able to perform any sorts of basic commands, including sit. So, I had her play a game with the squirrels. (This game was somewhat similar to the training adventure with the bunny rabbit that I wrote about earlier this summer!)
We started by asking the dog to “sit.” This was still way too much for him, so we backed up farther, until we found a distance sufficiently far away that he could sit when asked. As soon as he sat, he got to move several steps closer to the squirrels and spend a little bit of time watching them. Then, the owner would ask the dog to sit. When he did, they would move a little bit closer again.
A few times they got too close, and the dog could no longer hear anything she was saying. So, they would back up some and find a good distance where he could listen to simple cues. Pretty soon, the dog was quickly sitting when asked, even though he was 20-30 feet closer to the squirrels than he was when they started. He also was at a closer distance to the squirrels than he had been when he initially got distracted.
Rather than fighting against the dog’s natural desires or trying to distract him so that he would pay attention during class, we instead used what he really wanted (moving closer to the squirrels) to reinforce the desirable behaviors that we wanted (sitting and paying attention to his owner).
I often see pet owners (and even professional trainers) completely ignore what the dog really wants and, instead, continue to try to use the reward that the trainer thinks is appropriate, even when the animal is not very interested in that reward. For example, I was reading a new book the other day and came across a passage where the trainer even said that if the dog is not taking treats, to continue clicking and feeding treats, because eventually, the dog usually will start taking treats again.
To me, this doesn’t make sense at all. But, I see how trainers get caught up in this situation because I’ve been in similar places before and still sometimes find myself there. Sometimes, what you are doing just isn’t working. And, if you don’t have an alternative plan already planned out, it can be easy to just keep doing the same thing and hoping that eventually it will start working. However, this can be pretty frustrating and stressful for both you and the animal.
Instead, take a break. Take a moment to evaluate your training plan. What’s not going right and why is it not going right? Can you change the reinforcer you are using, move to a different location, or work on a different behavior instead? It can also be a really good decision sometimes to decide that your dog is just not ready for whatever you are trying to do and end for the day and come back later and try again.