Went on a short vacation with friends.  We each brought several dogs.  They brought their 9 month old sporting breed.  We chose the vacation spot because it had a fully fenced 8 acre area with pond.  Guess what the young sporting breed did while off leash?  Exactly what you would expect, investigated the underbrush and pond.  That’s his nature.  The Border Collies, OTOH, stuck by us in case we would “kick the ball!”  They could be anywhere in the world and their view would be the same (ground, ball, kick, chase, fetch, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat).  

The problem, of course, is that the sporting breed dog would not stay close to the people or return when called.  In fact, we noticed that all the other guests there had the same issue.  Dogs off leash, gone.  No recall responses at all.  We learned the dogs’ names because we heard the people yelling them so often “Simon! Simon! Simon!”  Of course, Simon was busy and did not come until he was tired.  Eventually people caught their dogs and put them on leash.  But not until the dogs were darn good and ready.  We almost got blitzed by a very wet, very happy Golden Retriever with a tennis ball.  No one could have stopped a dog fight if it started.  

You might think that this blog is going to be about recalls, but it’s not.  It’s about something much more fundamental, thinking.  The young sporting breed with us is a very nice boy.  He’s really sweet.  He gets at least an hour of free running exercise at home every day.  He is also managed well inside with expens, crates, and tethering to the owner.  She uses kongs and bones to keep him occupied.  The problem is, she has not taught him to think, at all.  He is a mass of reactions to the environment.  He is “out of his body” all the time.  If he is not physically contained, he is like an ADHD kid.  He is either jumping on you or ignoring you for some other distraction, but he never settles down.  He is “on” at all times unless he is sleeping.  He cannot pay attention to his owner because his attention is already occupied by a thousand other things.  

I tried to be very diplomatic in suggesting that some training might help.  Of course, she has been training, but not in the way I would recommend.  This boy needed to expend some mental energy.  He needed to solve challenging problems and figure out that he had a brain.  His training has been mostly physical responses, not mental puzzles.  And of course, my first thought was to work on impulse control.  Impulse control exercises force dogs to think about what they are doing and give them the option of making behavioral choices and seeing the consequences of those choices.  It puts them back “in their bodies” and helps them focus on themselves rather than on everything around them.  Over and over again I’ve seen dogs calm down, settle, and focus when impulse control exercises are properly executed.  

We worked on basic self-control starting with slow treats and “zen” work.  I started slowly moving a treat towards him, when he jumped to take it (as I knew he would) I slowly moved it away and waited.  When he settled I started moving the treat towards him again.  In less than 5 minutes he figured out that he needed to either sit or down to get me to move the treat to him, then give him verbal permission to take it.  It was an internal struggle, but he was completely focused on the task.  He wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.  In another quick lesson I pushed him harder.  He needed to be both still and quiet (a huge issue for him as he was a frustrated vocalizer).  But I shaped it for a bit and he got it.  He was focused on the task, and on me because I controlled the reinforcer that he wanted.  After each session he was so much calmer than he was even after an hour of running free (which of course I strongly suggested she change to running on a long line).  Physical exercise cannot replace mental exercise!  You just end up with a dog with more and more stamina that is still not thinking or able to calm himself down.  

Our last session we worked on “go to mat”.  He had worked on the baby steps of this with his owner already and he was a superstar as we raised criteria!  We worked up to tossing a cookie across the room for him to chase.  He would run back, down himself on the mat, wag his stumpy little tail, and patiently wait for the click and treat.  It was beautiful!  To see him go from an unfocused whirlwind to a self-controlled youngster was a lovely transformation.  And it only took 3 short training sessions.  I hope they continue this work as I know he will be a happier dog and they will be much happier owners.  A tiny little bit of focus training helped move him back into his body and helped him learn to take control himself.  Seeing such an easy, dramatic transformation  makes me sad for all the dogs that never get a chance to use their brains and be “in their bodies”.  It can be so quick and easy and it’s so much better for dog and owners alike.  Physical control alone is never enough.  It leads to what a friend of mine used to call “a prisoner at the end of the leash”.  You aren’t changing the dog’s behavior, you are simply preventing the dog from doing what he wants, which leads to conflict. It is so much better to teach our dogs that cooperation is the key to getting what they want!