By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
One definition of the term due diligence is “to prevent and mitigate via required carefulness”. Such diligence is always the first choice when addressing dog behavior problems. I coach my clients to focus first on management strategies (required carefulness) to keep our animals from doing things we don’t want them to (prevent and mitigate.). Set your dog up for success!
A few years back at a dog trainer conference, I heard someone use the analogy “don’t give your car keys to a kindergartener”. Applied to dog training, the idea is that we’d best not put our dogs in situations they are not ready for or that do not fit their temperaments. Instead, set your dog up for success! (Also, don’t give the car keys to your dog, although some dogs in New Zealand have been taught to drive.)
About those car keys
I use the “don’t give your car keys to the kids” analogy quite often, most notably when helping owners establish boundaries for their puppies. As noted in my post about potty training, giving your young puppy too much freedom is setting your puppy—and you—up for failure.
Unless you employ effective and well-thought-out confinement via a crate, a pen or both, you’re likely to end up with soiled floors, ripped up furniture and chewed shoes. Of course we expect our older dogs to have (mostly) free range of our homes, but that is a long-term goal, never the starting point.
For puppies (and newly rescued older dogs), use a combination of baby gates, crates and playpens to limit them to confined areas of your home. Your puppy can spend structured time outside of these areas, but only when you’re watching like a hawk. The BEST things should happen in these smaller areas, including meals, high-value chews and favorite toys. Over time, as your puppy learns what’s expected of her, you can expand or remove physical boundaries.
On to dog parks
Dog parks have only existed since the 1970s and are not an enjoyable environment for many dogs. Well-meaning folks put dogs in so many situations that are challenging even for the most laid back, social animal. A fenced in park full of unfamiliar dogs is not fun for many (if not most) dogs, and taking a fearful or aggressive dog is not setting anybody up for success. Your dog might want to be anywhere but there, and your anxiety around the activity will likely cause even more stress for both of you.
If your dog does not enjoy dog parks, find other way of providing physical exercise and mental stimulation, such as running, swimming, or extended games of fetch. (But please do not run your leashed dog while you’re tooling around on an e-bike. I scream when I see this and will address my thoughts on this in another post.)
Some dogs thrive in dedicated dog parks, especially those who were properly socialized as puppies. But even if you have the most socially adept dog in town, there are still times the dog park is not the best option for physical exercise and dog-dog social interactions. I advise my clients to scope the park, evaluate the dogs and people present, and determine if today is the day to play in the park. If there are too many dogs, or too many owners not paying attention, find something else to do.
Writing this post, I began to realize just how often I use certain phrases that encourage management, including the aforementioned “think two steps ahead” and “set your dog up for success”. I will end this post with another concept that is key to my training methodology: Whenever you want your dog to NOT do something, train an alternate, incompatible behavior.
A prime example is working with a dog who jumps on people, which is my pet peeve—pun intended. Instead of focusing on what you DON’T want your dog to do (jump on people), teach your dog an alternate/incompatible behavior. In this example, teach your dog to SIT as a default greeting: He cannot SIT and jump at the same time.
As a human being, you have a brain that evolved to solve complex problems. Your dog lives in the moment has more limited abilities to see the big picture and solve problems. As a team, using your big brain to devise management strategies, you can set your dog up to behave in ways you find acceptable, all the while providing all the mental and physical stimulation he needs to thrive.