N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 2/13/11
By: Gail T. Fisher
Have you ever reached for your dog’s collar, and he stays just out of reach? Or called your dog, and when you reach for her collar to put the leash on, she takes off again and plays Keep-Away?
Playing Keep-Away is a “learned” behavior that, believe it or not, you taught to your dog. Oh, I know you didn’t intend to, but unintentional training plays a huge role in our dogs’ behavior. Sometimes unintentional training useful, and at other time, such as in playing Keep Away, it’s not. Here’s how it works:
Dogs learn by forming associations. For example, the sound of jingling keys means a ride, an association formed through repeated juxtaposition of your keys and a ride. The sight of you picking up your dog’s leash means going for a walk. Opening the cupboard where the treats are kept means there’s a chance for a cookie. The associations your dog makes simply from repeatedly experiencing something within your daily life, whether you intentionally taught them or not, affect many of your dog’s behaviors, including the keep-away game.
It starts innocently enough. You take your dog out to exercise off-leash in a safe place. When it’s time to go home, you call your dog. He happily approaches, you snap the leash on and head for the car or house. Fun romp is over. After you’ve done this two or three (or more) times, the dog has formed an association: Going to Mom/Dad means playtime is over.
Another keep-away association forms when a dog fails come when called. Well-informed dog owners know that you should not chastise a dog when it comes to you, but many people mistakenly believe that if you call your dog, he doesn’t respond, and [ital] **you go to get the dog** it is OK to scold him for not coming. Here is a likely scenario of what is going on in the dog’s mind:
“I’m having a wonderful time. I heard Mom call, but I was hot on the trail of something interesting. Oh wow! Here comes Mom—coming to play, too! She’s following me. What a great game! Uh oh ... why is she hollering? Oh dear ... she grabbed me and yelled at me. Why is she so angry?”
After a few repetitions of this scenario, the dog learns that getting caught means getting scolded. The association made connects your approach and your anger. The solution in the dog’s mind? Keep-away! Don’t get caught until there’s no other option.
To prevent your dog learning to play Keep-Away, or to overcome an already-learned reaction to your approach or reaching for the collar, teach your dog that contact with you is always pleasurable. When he’s running loose, call him, place your hand in his collar, give him a treat and release him to go play again. Long before it’s time to end the game, touch his collar, praise and/or give him a tidbit, and tell him to go play some more. Coming to you and your touching his collar will then have a wonderful association, that is, “in the middle of this great game, I go to Dad, get a cookie, and get to play some more."
If you go to get your dog, praise her when you get to her – even if you’re angry that she didn’t come when you called. Being able to recognize that our dog’s behavior is often a result of what we have unwittingly taught him is the first step is changing our own behavior for the better.
Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2011. All rights reserved. http://www.alldogsgym.com For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.