Bucking the Puppy Status Quo

As a lot of you know there is a new puppy in my house. He isn’t “mine” technically, he belongs to my person and will be her sport dog someday. But he is mine in the sense that I love him and live with him, so I care very much about what kind of dog he grows up to be. I am finding that so many of my puppy raising ideas are contrary to those in my sport of dog agility that I’d like to share them here. Sometimes when we follow the status quo without question, we may not see that there is another route. I have no problems with anyone who chooses to raise puppies in a different manner, but this is what I think is best based on my current experiences.

Yielding to Restraint

It is commonplace in dog agility to restrain dogs in order to produce a little frustration (it is referred to as “drive”) so that the dog will burst ahead when they are let go. Essentially, the same reflex that tells dogs to pull on leash when they feel us pull back is tapped into here; we pull on them, they pull on us, and when we give in, they explode ahead. I get it. I have done it. I taught it to hundreds of people. I’ve changed my mind. Now I spend a lot of energy teaching my puppies to yield to collar or harness pressure. I don’t want them pulling on leash, and I want them to accept restraint easily. When they are held back I want this to be a cue for them to give in, to yield. I have no trouble teaching my pups to chase me down or run fast for a toy or food reinforcer without using restraint to build frustration, and my results in my cooperative care efforts are so much better for it. Now, could you have both? Of course you could, dogs are very contextual. But I find that I don’t require the restraint-frustration for my performance work, and that I really value a default yield response in my dogs, so that is where I put my energy.

Here, Watson learns all about yielding to restraint:


Stimulus Control > Impulse Control 

You’ve heard me lament on this before, but it bears repeating: teaching dogs when to eat is smarter than teaching them when not to. Border collies are pretty easy to teach to stop eating in working environments. Do you have one that won’t eat near agility? What about one that won’t eat if you have a toy? Ask any shepherd if his dog will take a treat mid-outrun and he will laugh in your face. This is a real breed trait, and we are silly to build it up! Teach your border collies (or any other high-intensity working breed) to eat on cue. Do not focus your energy on training them to refuse food, as traditional impulse control games do.

Here, Watson is working on learning when to take a treat:

Rocks, Tall Grass, and Logs, Oh My!

Again, broken record alert. Take your pup into nature. Let him run free. Let him navigate rocks, fallen trees, tall grasses, and even wildlife. He will learn things about how his body works that he can’t learn from your inflatable fitness equipment.


It Pays to Check-In

I don’t recall my puppies early on. I just produce a consistent, repeated check-in response by paying them every single time they show up when we are out and about together. I do not nag at them or try to ask them to come over to me. I just feed them every time they do. You know what happens? They do it more often, and then I am on my way to start recalling. Funny thing, reinforcement.

We Can Do Hard Things

There is a persistent belief that we need to teach our puppies “resilience” or “frustration tolerance” or even “failure tolerance” via training. Hogwash. My aim is always to have learning be a non-frustrating event in which my dog is never actually made aware of failures (human construct–they only recognize lack of reinforcement, not “failure”). They can learn resilience through other means. I like to present them with challenges–challenges that have nothing to do with training setups–that I know they can get through. I watch them feel a slight challenge, and then come out the other side. Resilience is actually earned through facing down a challenge and seeing success as the outcome, not in failure. That we become resilient due to picking ourselves up by our bootstraps and and falling again and again is a very attractive human construct that we need not subject our puppies to. So I put a life vest on them and wade out into the water. They want to follow me, so they figure out how to swim. I put their food in increasingly challenging puzzles and they want to eat, so they figure that out too. They learn that they can do hard things, and they never have to think training is hard to get to that conclusion. 37187113_10214986114039381_3152382506364305408_o

So, consider what you’re doing. Consider what kind of dog you want to raise. Think about if what you have been taught, or what you have always done, is actually what you want to keep doing.




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