Whole Dog Journal's Blog November 26, 2012

Practice, Practice, and Benefit

Posted at 05:07PM - Comments: (9)

I used to live next door to a woman who played the Bassoon. She was in the local community orchestra, in quartets and quintets in the community. She had been playing the instrument for many years, now semi-retired and getting much satisfaction from her involvement with the local groups.

It was very common for me to hear her practicing, doing scales, playing bits of movements from the next Sibelius Concerto or whatever that they were going to be performing. This is a person who played for years, is quite accomplished, yet she continues to go back to basics, refresh and remind the fingers, the mouth, the mind, of the early things learned. (Of course, as a double reed instrument, one does need to maintain practice just to be successful at making it sing.)

When you or I took guitar or violin or piano lessons as children, we were reminded that we needed to practice each day between lessons in order to retain competence. Those of us that didn't embrace this advice tended to give up the lessons for other pursuits. The flute or clarinet was returned to the rental store, the guitar went back to the closet to gather dust.

But again and again I hear from people who took their dog to a puppy class or to a beginning obedience class and then expected the dog to know how to behave from then on. When I explain that reminders and practice and new skills are good for all dogs, I often hear resistance. Shouldn't that one 6-, 8-, or 10-week class have taken care of the rest of the dog's life? Shouldn't he then know to come when called, keep off the furniture, refrain from jumping on people, stay when asked?

We lead busy lives. It takes time and effort to communicate formally or even with concentrated focus with our dogs. It also brings huge rewards that make every minute of doing so worth the time. It builds our relationship, it allows for more freedom to the dog to join us in more activities, it becomes something that our dog very much looks forward to each day, the joy of interacting with us, and using his brain. In my book, it’s all upside -- the only downside being carving the time out of our day. It allows us to learn and understand more and more about our dog.

It doesn't need to be much time. Even a couple of 10-minute or a few 5-minute focused attention slots in our day will be a huge advantage to both dog and person. When we put the guitar away in the closet or close up the piano, there is not much cost. But if we do this with our dog, there is a big cost. They pick up habits that displease us, they lose beneficial privileges because of unruly behavior or a lack of self-control. We may even begin to resent them a bit. Some investment in teaching them, communicating with them would bring the exact opposite result. We grow to love them and appreciate them so much more when we actually put time and focus on tutoring them in desirable behavior, teaching them fun tricks, or finding that they have amazing aptitude, well beyond what we could have imagined.

And yes, we need to continue to practice our scales throughout their lives. They may become very proficient at many things, but refreshing and renewing the basics will always come in handy. The more we engage with our dogs, become active participants in their lives and in communicating with them, the more we appreciate them and they us. We can't just take them through one beginner-level class and call them done. And the more we ask of each other, the more amazing our partnership becomes.

They can't be put in the closet. And we don't want to give up on what could be a profound and wonderful relationship, just because we neglected feeding it or nurturing it. If we start out right, prevent the things that aren't so cute when they are adults or not so newly adopted, but more established in our homes, watch their joy as they learn new things, it can only result in a beautiful thing. The investment pays off exponentially. And they don't have much risk of being surrendered to a shelter or rescue, their lives upended.


Tricia Breen has been involved with horses and dogs for most of her life. She studied biology and animal behavior in college, and spent years training her dogs and helping others to teach their dogs while moving around the country. Once settled back in her native California, she participated in and taught classes at her local dog training club, then taught classes and conducted behavior consults at the Marin Humane Society. For the last five years, Tricia was the Director of Animal Care and Adoptions at Marin Humane Society, always keeping an eye toward helping dogs and volunteers with shelter life. She has recently left this role and gone back to assisting people with their dogs to build relationships, consulting with behavior and training issues. She can be reached via  www.canine-behavior-associates.com as a new partner in this endeavor. 


Comments (6)

Diana, i am not sure where your dogs are in their training. I also have 3 dogs and i run little drills with them by asking them to sit/stay and then asking each in turn to do one command, rewarding their sit/stays as well. I might do a group "find it" and then bring them back to the sit/stay and ask each one to do their own "trick" (the corgi rolls over, the cattle dog crawls - or used to before hip displasia kind of limited his mobility). I also taught the corgi and cattle dog to roll over in tandem, one on my right, one on my left and rolling in the same direction. My less well trained chihuahua goes along for the ride :) i need to read that article about training small dogs!

Posted by: Rachel S | December 12, 2012 9:49 PM    Report this comment

What a coincidence that this article appeared today...I have a neighbor with a 2 year old bichon/poodle mix that she rescued and 2 rescued cats (ages 3 and 12). With her and several of the other neighbors with dogs, we've scheduled daily doggie play time for 90 minutes. Even with the cold weather we let them run, play fetch, socialize, reinforce the leash/basic commands and finally take them on a long walk together (a sort of exercise 'cool down') throughout the development before all going to our separate homes. It has helped acquaint the dogs who often were 'nuisance' barkers when they would see one of the dogs walkng while being on the internal side of a glass patio door. Since the colder weather has hindered some of the older folks who really mind the bitter climes (my neighbor with the rescue pets is in this group); I've offered things I do with my 1.5 year old Shih Tzu indoors to keep them stimulated and bonded with their human and out of 'trouble'. I provide him with 20 minutes of activity every other hour or so while I am doing my chores to prepare for my next 8 hour day of work. The things he (Weston) loves can be as simple as hiding one of his toys while I pack my lunch, I might hide behind a door when getting my clothes laid out...hide and seek of either me or one of his many toys seems to be his favorite thing. We've been doing this since I brought him home at 12 weeks old. He just thrives from the mental stimulation as well as when I chase him around as a reward when he finds ME and these simple things might take 20 minutes and then he'll nap or rest with one of his chewy items for 90 minutes to 2 hours on average. My 'rescue' neighbor has been constantly complaining at how her bichon is getting into things or 'misbehaving' in ways that she never did before. This neighbor is unemployed and with all the free time she has it seems she just wants to have an unstructured life and often voices her resentment at the attention her dog demands. I think all living beings need structure and daily practice on just basic life skills. It seems like my neighbor wants her dog to pay attention to her and not get into or demonstrate some of the negative behaviors that have been occuring. I've given her some 'thinking' toys that Weston likes (a tree trunk with 8 owls he loves to tear into and run around and shake like crazy to get them out---then he wants to do it all over again). On our walks I try to show her how I continue the positive leash training with Weston (sit, heel, stay close) when at curbs, crossing the streets, approaching passersby. I have taken my neighbor's dog on walks when she's had errands to run and the bichon is well-behaved and almost craves the mental and physical stimulation I provide when just working with her (I'll bring her into my place for some playtime) and Weston is content taking a steer tendon chewy off on his own. It just takes a little reinforcement with our 4 legged companions and they can return such joy and benevolence back to us. I am going to give this article to my neighbor with the hope that she gets the message.

Posted by: Angela F | November 29, 2012 6:10 AM    Report this comment

I work full time and have a 4 hour daily commute. That said I always find a few minutes here and there to play (train)my pup. Things my Remy can do is fetch laundry, trade things he shouldn't have for treats, find daddy, along with all the usual, sit stay come down wait. I'm not looking for a highly trained special service animal, just a pleasant to be around dog. This is not something that can be taught in any timed session. If I don't keep requesting the behaviors I want and rewarding them, he will do the behaviors that placate him and that may not sit well with me. Even people won't be well behaved without reinforcements. Just ask any police doing speed details.

Posted by: Remysmom | November 28, 2012 3:16 PM    Report this comment

Might I suggest that you get someone to help you. You work on correcting the "watchers" behavior and someone else working with the one dog. Then reverse it. This is a training opportunity for all three dogs. Second choice would be to kennel or tether them where you may walk over and correct the "watchers" behavior. Patience, you may spend more time working with the "watchers" the first couple of times than with the dog you intend to train. jetsparks

Posted by: Jeanette S | November 27, 2012 3:12 PM    Report this comment

I have two dogs that I work with, but I do it as part of our everyday life. On our walks, they sit quietly as people pass us by. They do down stays as we take a break by a pond watching the ducks and geese. Sometimes I will work with one outside for a few minutes, then go inside to work with the other dog. I only work for 5 minutes at a time, fast paced, doing tricks, sits, downs, stays, the dogs LOVE it and learn to be patient and wait their turn. I do sometimes work with them both at the same time. They learn to only respond when I specifically use their name. Other times, it is both responding at the same time (I use a communal name "Doggies" when I want them both to sit, or down, or stay, or come or front). Training should be a part of life and FUN!! Make it a game.

Posted by: cburger2@gmail.com | November 27, 2012 12:46 PM    Report this comment

I totally agree with Tricia, but I have 3 dogs who always want to be together, so I find it difficult to work at home with just one at a time. When I try, the other two, who I put in another room or outside, seem to know that I'm doing something very interesting (and involving treats!) with one of them, and protest loudly and persistently the whole time. This bothers me a lot, which tends to shorten or even eliminate training time. Also, I don't use a clicker to train, as the two dogs not being trained hear the clicker and get even more excited. Other than training each dog away from my home, which takes more time than I can spare, how do others handle training with multiple dogs as well as using a clicker around other dogs? -- Diana

Posted by: Diana in Md | November 27, 2012 9:58 AM    Report this comment

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