There are a number of exercises you can practice and behaviors you can train to help lower your dog’s arousal level and strengthen their abilities for self-control. The “watch” behavior is an excellent example. It is relatively easy to teach, however, watch needs to be practiced and reinforced a great deal, initially with no or low distractions, in order for it to be successful out in the world when you need it most. In this post I will outline how to teach watch, practice it, and apply it to everyday life.
Using the “watch” behavior can be very useful, especially if you are dealing an adolescent or reactive dog. When a dog learns to look at his handler (directly) on cue it means the dog is no longer looking at another object (stimulus) that might cause him to get aroused. By using an incompatible behavior, watching you, your dog cannot also be staring at something he’s prone to react to.
TEACHING THE “WATCH”
In a non-distracting environment, no other dogs or activities going on take a very yummy treat and hold it right up to your dog’s nose. Before he grabs for it raise the treat up to your nose and pause for a moment or two. As long as your dog looks toward your face mark the behavior (with a click or “yes”) and give the treat to your dog. Note: you should not move your hand until after you have marked the behavior! You can use verbal praise as you deliver the treat.
You will not be adding the word “watch” yet, because your dog doesn’t understand the behavior, so the word would not have meaning or context.
If you are wondering why you would mark the behavior of looking at your face vs. looking in your eyes it’s because some dogs are not comfortable offering direct eye contact. This is because direct eye contact can be confrontational, especially in dog-to-dog interactions. You will want to pace your training based on your dog’s confidence and comfort level with the exercise.
As your dog gets more comfortable looking directly at you, gradually extend the amount of time your dog holds your gaze before you mark the behavior i.e. count to three and then mark the behavior and give the treat. If your dog looks away before the full count to three just say “oops” and restart the behavior. Now that your dog is looking in your eyes you can add the verbal cue “watch”. To introduce the word you will say it just before you present the treat in front of your dog’s nose.
Once your dog is consistently looking at you when you raise the treat to your nose, you can make the exercise harder by using both hands. Have a treat in each hand, place both hands/treats at your dog’s nose, then raise both hands to your nose, and now separate your hands to the left and right. Your dog may look from left to right (or vice versa), the moment your dog looks in your eyes, even for a nanosecond, mark the behavior and give the treat. This will help him understand that it’s eye contact you are looking for.
Practice this for several days in a non-distracting environment and reinforce generously every time your dog looks at you when you say “watch”. Try to make it into a fun game. When your dog’s just hanging out and not paying any attention to you say “Dog’s name watch” and mark the moment he turns his head toward you and shower him with treats, praise and/or have an unexpected play session.
Now that your dog understands how rewarding it is to look at you when you say “watch” it’s time to start using it in the real world. For our example we’ll assume the dog’s issue is a desire to chase cars as they drive by. You will want to pick a training location that is close enough to periodic traffic that you will have a chance to train but not so close or with so much traffic that your dog gets over stimulated/threshold*.
Preparations for training:
• You’ve selected a training area perhaps at a local park or near an intersection in your neighborhood where you can safely be away from the traffic as you gradually refine your new skill.
• Your dog has been well exercised.
• Your dog is hungry.
• You have lots of tasty treats.
As you approach the training location with your dog keep an eye out for traffic. The moment you see a car approaching you will ask your dog to watch, do not wait until the car is near you, that will be too late. Position your body so that when your dog looks at you he is also looking AWAY from the oncoming vehicle. As your dog turns to look at you mark the behavior and give several treats. Continue feeding your dog as the car passes by. If your dog was successful, stop feeding once the car has passed you and ask your dog for another behavior like a sit or down and reward that calm behavior. If your dog was not successful it’s likely you were too close to the road and the vehicle. Next time try to be at least an additional 10 feet away, continue to add distance until your dog is able to be successful.
Continue working in this same location until your dog is giving you a quick watch at least 8 out of 10 times you ask for it, and is able to be calm throughout the training session. Once you have achieved this level of success in the initial training location you can try a new setting. If your dog regresses in the new setting don’t be discouraged. Dogs do not generalize well and your dog may just need you to take it more slowly. Add more distance between you and the traffic and continue the training as you did in your original location.
Good luck 🙂
* Threshold — The point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced. Merriam-Webster.
Also known as self-control, impulse control is a key element in training a puppy or dog to have basic manners.
Almost every dog has some issue with self-control. Your dog may jump, barge through doorways, or try to get food off the counter (or right out of your hand) — it’s natural, however, at best these behaviors can be a nuisance and at worst dangerous if they are allowed to continue.
Remember first and foremost — dogs do what works for them — and if something (a behavior) works for them it means the behavior is reinforcing and reinforced behaviors get stronger!
I was encouraged to write a blog on this subject because over the past week I have had two first-hand experiences with young dogs that lacked impulse control.
Situation number one — My dog Casey and I were just leaving the dog club with a friend and her dog when someone arrived in a car for an upcoming class. At first glance my gut instinct said, “TROUBLE”. I turned to my friend and said I’m going to get my dog into the car NOW. As I was unlocking my car door I saw the rear window go down of the car that had just pulled in (the car was still moving). The dog jumped out of the window onto the driveway! Fortunately the dog went over to my friend’s dog (the nicest little dog you’d ever want to meet) and my friend grabbed the escapee by the collar. The owner quickly parked the car and came to claim his large adolescent canine. Apparently the dog pushed the window control and then leaped out of the car.
Why did I sense trouble when I first saw the dog in the car? I saw his body language — he was very aroused.
Situation number two — It can often be hectic at the dog club when classes change over (one class exiting while another arrives). In order to help manage traffic I often hold the door for those leaving while suggesting placement for those who are arriving. As I was holding the door a Golden Retriever mix was preparing to exit. Looking at the dog’s demeanor, I asked the handler “Are you okay?” She said, “Yes, we’re fine.” Why did I ask? I saw the same expression on this dog’s face as I’d seen on the dog described above.
As the handler & dog walked across the threshold to exit the dog lunged at another dog that was approaching from the parking lot. The handler was pulled to the ground. I quickly ran to grab the dog’s leash and help the handler back to her feet. The handler was not hurt and her dog did not get away from her, but as you can imagine things could have quickly gotten worse.
It’s important to teach your dog that they have choices and that a choice of calm behavior can be VERY rewarding. In my upcoming blogs I will address teaching behaviors that help build a dog’s self-control. I will review:
- Wait at the doorway
- Leave it
- No jump
- Sit for supper
- Penalty yards
I hope you will find these helpful 🙂