Many dog owners find it difficult to maintain their dog's attention, particularly when out together on a walk. Considering how often most of us walk our dogs (daily), it can be surprising to many dog owners when their dog's ability to pay attention while on leash gets worse over time rather than better. In this blog I'd like to talk about teaching your dog how to do targetting, a brilliant way of gaining and maintaining your furry friend's attention anywhere - out on a walk, in the backyard, or even in the home, with or without the presence of distractions. It's simpler than you think, and when done correctly will represent a massive change in your dog's ability to pay attention to you in any scenario.
Start with your fist and second fingers of your left hand pressed together into a point. Smear a bit of peanut butter or spreadable cheese on your fingertips, and hold your hand out flat so that your dog can sniff it. Start in a location free of distractions, and place your hand just a few inches from your dog's nose. Once your dog touches your fingertips with his nose, remove the target (your hand) and reward your dog with a treat.
Repeat this approximately fifteen times in quick succession. My bet is your dog touches the target reliably, when placed within a few inches of his face, after ten repeats. Once you have this down pat, change the position of your hand. Remember! Start slow. Move your targetting hand just a foot away from your dog's face. Then two feet. Next, move the target hand far enough away from your dog that he has to step forward to touch it. Continue in this way, being sure to reward your dog at each successful target-touch.
If you find your dog is missing the mark, barking, or just looking at you with a confused gaze, go back to a closer position and repeat the above exercise until he knows exactly what it is you're asking for.
It is important to note at this juncture that you want to reinforce this targetting behavior from your dog, and very strictly avoid bribing your dog to give you the behavior you want. To do this, introduce a variable reward schedule to your targetting training once your dog is responding predictably and reliably to the target. Begin by removing the peanut butter or cheese lure from your fingertips. At this stage, do have a treat ready for delivery to your dog when he successfully touches your hand with his nose (targets). Once he responds quickly and correctly a number of times, increase your distance away from your dog and repeat the exercise.
Remember! If you leave your target hand out for your dog to touch whenever he feels like it, taking his time and blowing you off in the meanwhile, he will continue to do this instead of rapidly and sharply touching the target. The point here being that if you want to train your dog's attention, you will need to work this targetting exercise in such a way that your dog's attention is kept on, well, target!
Make your movements sharper by making your target hand appear and disappear, sort of like doing a karate chop Jackie Chan-style. Once your dog successfully touches it, make the target disappear behind your back while simultaneously giving your dog a treat for the excellent work.
Once your dog knows how to reliably target your hand, you can use this attention-training tool on walks, whenever your dog is noticeably distracted, or as a preventative to avoid becoming distracted altogether (but you do need to be quick and attentive for this one!).
What's more, targetting doesn't need only be done with your hand. While it's an excellent place to begin (since it's directly attached to your body and generally not going anywhere), you can use these same principles to teach your dog to target his favorite toy or ball as well. Finally, targetting is a wonderful way to bond with your dog, to keep him engaged, entertained, and focused on you.
Taking one look at the title, you may assume I'm here to talk about bull dogs and their related breeds. The truth is, any dog can have a bully personality, dependent on environment, conditioning, and disposition. I'm here to talk about what causes 'bully behavior' in dogs and what we can do about it.
To begin, I'd like to touch a little bit on the terms "dominance" and "aggression" in dogs. Often, these words are used to describe a dog that is just misbehaved. "Dominance" refers to a relationship between individuals, whether they be canine or otherwise. When one of these individuals consistently concedes to wishes or demands of the other, "dominance" is established in favor of the party conceded to. Unruly attitudes in canines are often mislabeled as "dominant" when really we're just dealing with unruly, or even "spoiled rotten" personalities.
In establishing who gets senior access to different resources like food, toys, attention/affection or even simply the best spot on the couch, what we commonly call "aggression" can develop between individual dogs, and between dogs and their owners. The question then follows:
When does this behavior start?
When dogs are puppies, they are often treated like tiny, furry, wet-nosed royalty. We heap affection upon them for doing absolutely nothing but being cute. We proffer food in their direction on demand. They have VIP access to the furniture. We buy them more toys than we have pairs of socks, and we've given so many different treats that their volume alone takes up the space of an entire cupboard.
As much as we want to give our dogs the best lives possible, this level of comfort and enjoyment causes most dogs to become spoiled and as a result, quite poorly behaved. In and of itself, provided we're willing to pull back on the treats and institute a regular, consistent schedule of good manners and household rules, we can get our dogs back on track in no time. Right?
Well, not always. For dogs with more rapacious personalities, this lifestyle, bereft of firm leadership and consistently reinforced rules, creates a fuzzy monster-in-disguise. This dog becomes master of literally any and all resources s/he wants, from furniture to toys, food and treats, certain rooms in the house, the people who live in the house, guests, and in extreme cases, the entire territory of the household. These dogs are tyrants in your home, wreaking havoc with their behavior and leaving you feeling out of control.
It is extremely important to note that the vast majority of what are often termed “aggressive” cases we deal with as dog trainers fall in three categories: 1) dogs that are possessive over a single resource (resource-guarding) 2) dogs that are capricious due to a lack of leadership and consistent rules (confused dogs) (3) dogs that have been physically or verbally reprimanded by an owner who, for whatever reason, was unable to provide alternative behavior and as such, the dog simply doesn't know what to do.
How do we know if I'm dealing with a bully of a dog?
The first sign will come from the dog's body language. S/he will show great confidence, and his/her physical positioning in relation to other dogs, resources, and/or people will tell the story.
You'll notice that the dog will be bark and bite/snap over resources like food, toys, locations and in the most serious cases, people (both known and unknown).
The last and biggest tell your dog will give you are rapid, unpredictable changes in behavior. This kind of indicator you simply cannot ignore. One minute your dog will be lying at your feet, happy as a clam. The next, s/he has charged your roommate and taken a three inch strip off his pant leg. These changes in behavior happen lightning-fast and often before you are able to react.
If your dog is exhibiting any of these behaviors, please consult with a professional trainer or animal behaviorist right away. The sooner you address these behaviors with your dog, the sooner you'll have the tools and skills necessary to manage and largely extinguish it. Please see why-things-seem-to-get-worse-before-they-get-better.html for information on the nature of behavioral conditioning, extinction bursts, and spontaneous recovery.
So we've established whether or not we have a simply spoiled, unruly dog on our hands, or a bully of a dog. What do we do now?
As humans, we have a wonderful faculty that we just don't utilize as much as we should: our brains. In the case of bully dogs, we use our smarts, not our physical power, to regain control of what can often be a potentially dangerous situation. It requires a wide-reaching approach that will simultaneously change the dog's entire demeanor.
To start, we'll want to regain control of all resources that trigger a battle. Food, furniture, toys, you name it, you control your dog's access to it. Only relinquish access to these items, places, and things when your dog offers a polite, wanted behavior. Ideally something you've put on cue, like "Sit", or "Down". By doing this, we'll inform our dogs that the way of things is one of "order and predictability". When our dog wants something, they just have to sit or lay down politely to receive it on our say-so. At first, you'll want to reward your dog right away for these wanted behaviors. Once your dog has the idea, offer these rewards on a variable or unpredictable schedule (not every time!), so that your dog doesn't always expect something for good behavior.
You'll be amazed at how rapidly your dog's attitude flips, particularly if you're able to make all of these changes at the same time. Once your dog gets the picture, the tremendous weight of trying to be "the boss" will be lifted, and s/he'll get back to being what s/he is - a great dog that's fun to be around, a pleasure to have in house and home, and a cherished member of the family.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.