Be as interesting to your dog as a squirrel

Nov. 17, 2012 @ 12:51 PM

There's a joke among dog trainers that the only thing two of them can agree upon is what that third one is doing wrong. While there can be several methods for teaching a behavior, both humans and dogs tend to "see" things in similar ways.

Let's say we're watching a football game on TV. We are aware of the room in which we sit, but it does not have our whole attention. It's as if lit by a soft background floodlight. We look at the TV screen and spotlight the plays and players. When precise replay action is shown, we have laser vision.

Canine research suggests our dogs do something similar. Let's say we're out for a stroll with Lassie. She's completely aware of her environment from that background floodlight perspective. If a neighbor's child comes sailing down his driveway on a skateboard, you can bet Lassie will spotlight that action in a hurry. Laser vision for all dogs is as near as the first squirrel that darts across the path!

We can use these ways of "seeing" when teaching Lassie something really useful like STAY. First, we should ask ourselves exactly what it is we want our dogs to do when told to stay. Remain in the kitchen? Lie on the dog bed? Lie on the dog bed in the kitchen and not jump up whenever we walk toward the refrigerator? That's a lot for Lassie to have to figure out. We could begin by breaking down STAY to simply this: remain in position until told to do otherwise. Let's call that "duration."

One easy way to help Lassie grasp this idea is to put her supper kibble in a plastic bag and take a seat. Call the dog, give her a piece or two of food. Tell her to lie down beside your chair, give her another piece of food. So long as she remains lying down, you can randomly place a few pieces of her dog food between her front paws. After about 10 seconds of this, tell her, "Okay!" in a cheerful voice and toss a piece of kibble across the room for her to race after. Call her back and repeat the lying down and feeding, but this time for only 5 seconds before the "Okay!" and food toss. Continue to repeat this process until she finishes her meal. Each time we vary the bits of food offered and the amount of time Lassie remains lying down before the "Okay!"

If you want to teach Lassie to remain down for many minutes among all sorts of other activities with you out of sight, you might think this approach is too time consuming. I look at teaching duration like the first course of brickwork in a wall.

When not properly prepared, the finished wall can be a crooked mess or even fall down on us. Randomly rewarding during and randomly releasing Lassie from her down stay accomplishes two things. The dog learns the all important "remain in position until told to do otherwise." She has also tuned out her background floodlight way of seeing and focused her spotlight vision on you. If you are truly good at random reinforcement, Lassie will keep you in her laser vision. It's fun to think we can become as interesting to our dogs as squirrels!

"Duration" is the first course of our teaching STAY. Next time we can talk about two more layers necessary for the finished behavior: "distance" and "distraction."

I hope to see you at the Piedmont Kennel Club's 22nd annual Meet the Breeds event on December first. Bring a new, unwrapped toy to contribute to the US Marine Corps Toys for Tots campaign — details at or e-mail me via