Slowing Down to Help Smiley Calm Down

By: David Codr

Published Date: August 13, 2015

Smiley

Smiley is a three year old Bernese Mountain Dog who was rescued about a year ago. Her guardians contacted me to put an end to her habit of only obeying if she felt like it, getting too excited when guests arrived and behave while on the leash.

Right away I noticed that the dog was lavished with praise, pets and attention. While petting a dog is a great activity, over petting a dog or petting it in the wrong situations can cause problems. For example, her guardians asked her to sit a few times where the dog didn’t actually sit. But despite the fact that the dog wasn’t following their request, they were rewarding her by petting her.

So we have a giant breed dog that gets all the attention she wants and then some. That can lead to a dog that has an inflated sense of importance. If petting and rewards are given too freely they can loose their motivational value.

Making matters worse, Smiley;s guardians hadn’t really introduced any rules or limits. Dogs kind of go through life feeling things out by probing forward. Once they are corrected, they understand where the line or limit is. But if you don’t have any rules or enforce boundaries, you don’t come across as a leader in a dog’s eyes.

Fortunately Smiley is a smart dog with a medium energy and a desire to please. If she didn’t have those qualities, this could have been a much different case.

I went over a number of ways that the guardians can incorporate rules or structure to help Smiley start seeing that they are the authority figures. Many of these were small things like asking the dog to wait and follow behind them rather than race ahead.

To put this into practice, I showed her guardian how to tell Smiley to wait until called before heading up the stairs.

We repeated the exercise a few times going up and down the stairs. Rushing ahead of the humans on the stairs was part desire to show off and part to be in the leadership position. If a dog is in front of the human, in a literal sense it is leading it.

Every time we ask a dog to wait and let the humans pass first on the stairs, we can help it practice a little self control. Over time, small interactions like this can lead to a deep respect for a human’s authority.

Because Smiley is in the entryway to the office when clients arrive, her guardian wanted to make sure she didn’t rush or bump into them. They had conditioned the dog to move over to where the treat bowl was after guests arrived to raise her paw in a welcoming trick.

This was great after the greeting. The problem was the dog sometimes got over excited during the actual greeting when the human walked through the door. As a giant breed dog, even a friendly bump could knock over some humans so I showed her guardians how to teach her to go to a new location on command.

Because the guardian works in the financial world, we had a little fun by using a command of “IRA” as we practiced; repeating the word each time we gave the dog a positive reinforcer for moving to the new intended location.

Next I wanted to see how excited Smiley got when she realized that she was going out on a walk. It started off a little disjointed as I had started to talk about a Martingale collar before we started this exercise and her guardians started looking for their own to use. But this exercise wasn’t intended to go for an actual walk. I just wanted to see how excited the dog got before it left on the walk.

Smiley did pretty good. There was an early spike in energy, but it tapered off and the dog stayed calm until the leash got attached. But once the leash was on, she got so excited she started to bite at he leash and pulsate with energy and excitement.

I had her guardian repeat that exercise nine times until we were able to keep the dog completely calm. Notice how Smiley even waits and keeps a follower position as she walks down the hallway.

As a giant breed dog, I wanted to make it easy for her guardian to practice walking the dog in a heel so she could introduce a “heel” command word. I used a trick that taps into a dog’s scent instincts. By holding the teat in her hand when the dog is in the perfect heel position as she walks, she can practice providing a positive reinforcer while associating a command word with the dog walking at a heel.

It will be important for Smiley’s guardian to repeat this heel walking exercise inside a few times a day for a week. I was able to take the dog out on a short walk and keep her in a heel position, but it was a very structured walk with pauses before almost every step.

We had been going at it for quite a while and when I returned from the walk, Smiley was pretty spent. Because of her size, teaching her to always heel can be difficult at first. The dog had already dragged one of her guardians down the street chasing a squirrel.

Working on the exercises inside (pausing when getting out the leash, waiting on the stairs, etc) over the rest of this week will go a long ways towards developing Smiley’s ability to restrain and control herself. Combined with the indoor heel practice, Smiley will be far better equipped to show some discipline and remain at a heel amongst distractions.

For the next step, I arranged for my apprentice Tara to work with Smiley on the walk over the next week. I want the dog to get into a habit of walking at a heel with a loose leash outside with an experienced handler first. Just like humans, dogs get better with practice. By bringing in Tara, I know the dog will be in the best position to achieve our loose leash walk goal.

By the end of the session, Everyone was spent.

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It will be important that Smiley’s guardians practice asking the dog to wait, literally walking in front and petting her for a reason rather than she is nearby. In this case, a reduction in petting will actually increase the dog’s desire for it. This is a strong motivator.

And when they do want to pet the dog, asking her to do something simple like sit (she needs practice at the sit for sure), then only petting her when she follows the command, we can gradually help her see the guardians as someone to listen to and respect. The deeper this perception, the less the dog will disobey or fail to respond to commands and corrections. In time, the dog simply does the things its guardians want as those are the times they pet the dog. Once you get into a habit for petting your dog as a reward, you continually deepen the leader follower dynamic between guardian and dog.

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