Call me crazy
I like crazy dogs.
I like over-the-top dogs, dogs that come bounding in biting at their leashes (or anything else they can cram into their mouths). I like rambunctious, nutty, go-getters that exhaust their owners. Those are my favorite dogs to train. Why do I enjoy these dogs so much? I find them to be surprisingly easy and rewarding. All of that dog energy can be channeled to our own purposes!
Most pet owners want to reduce the arousal their dogs show (and most dogs will calm progressively with age and training); some competition or working handlers want to keep the hair-trigger reaction, but with reliable, trained behaviors. Both ends are possible with clicker training.
A friend, a crossover trainer like myself, was bemoaning the superb enthusiasm of her young, unneutered, standard poodle. His habit of pogo-jumping was wearing her out. "I can't train him to heel until I can stop his bouncing," she complained.
"Not true at all," I protested. "Don't you dare try to stop that bouncing. You want that energy for happy, enthusiastic heeling. Use it!"
How do you channel and use that energy? There are several principles I follow in channeling the energy of eager achievers.
* Ignore the crazy stuff. Owners of "crazy dogs" tend to see and focus on the obnoxious jumping, the leash biting, the lunging for enthusiastic greetings, and the persistent harassment to play tug or fetch. I see a dog asking in every possible way to engage with his human, a dog begging for the interaction of operant conditioning. These dogs just adore inducive training and respond to it quickly.
Many compulsive methods require considerable time and effort to suppress unwanted behavior, all before starting to teach desirable behavior. With clicker training, you can jump straight into teaching a new behavior and disregard what you don't want, trusting that it will disappear shortly. If you are like me, the surplus excitement won't bother you. With clicker training, you'll get what you want soon enough!
Love that energy. Enthusiasm carries into training, making training that much easier. All the effort the dog is putting into bucking like a bronco on the leash will soon be thrown into eager downs and fast targeting! This makes the trainer's work simpler. You don't have to create new behavior, you just have to shape what's already occurring. And that's perfect for a lazy trainer like me!
Use the dog's own motivation. With an average dog, you have to take time to find what motivates that dog—a special toy, a preferred treat? Crazy dogs are motivated by everything! That means you won't be stumped when the dog gets distracted or when you're caught without treats on hand. Simply use whatever is stimulating the dog in the current environment. More benefits for a lazy trainer! "You want to see that friendly new person? Fine, let's work for it! And you can keep eye contact to earn this stick I picked up." Crazy dogs tend to tell you exactly what they want to work for at the moment. If you believe them—he wants to play tug, or meet a person, or chase a ball—they're eager to work for their reward. Reinforcement is control. Too often, owners have been told they have to "get control of" their dog by suppressing his natural energy. But energy has a critical mass; if suppressed and contained too long, it cannot help but explode into activity. This is why a dog that does not know how to earn a toy, for example, will grab at hands or clothing. The forcible condensing of fusion results in a supernova, and the same is true for crazy dogs! Suppression creates time bombs, and the mere illusion of command. With clicker training, you'll get what you want soon enough! Channeling creates true control. A dog that knows it's possible to earn what he wants can control himself to get it instead of fighting with his owner or trainer. (Careful management of criteria is critical here!) If you try to fight the dog's natural exuberance, you will never really manage his energy. But once the dog believes he can earn his energy release, you have him forever.
That's all very well in theory, but how does this work in practice?
The dog can always win. I start teaching a very basic concept—what the dog wants is available to him, but by my rules. You don't want frustration, you want analytical thinking. It's very easy for this type of dog to get locked into frustration and hectic behavior. You can establish right from the start that there's a way to win if he thinks about it.
Inherently, this concept includes impulse control. Rather than plunging about in a desperate scramble for what he wants, the dog can hold himself still and try to earn it. (If the dog and owner team need impulse control instruction right away, for safety reasons, it is possible to start there. Personally I prefer to jump right in to teaching a new behavior, but I don't mind being jumped on or scratched before the dog acquires the new behavior. Some handlers can't tolerate such risks, though.)
Here's how I teach very basic impulse control.
I show the crazy dog a treat, briefly, and then enclose it in my fist. The dog will probably attempt to poke it free, nudging my hand, pawing at me, nipping, and barking. (I usually start this exercise myself, as most clients don't have the experience to trust where this is going!) The average crazy dog is active and will not pause in his quest, but will actually pull back as if to pounce again. Right then, I click that quick movement and open my hand, delivering the treat or letting it drop to the floor. Then I repeat the process. Most dogs are backing up within a half dozen repetitions, though some take longer if they've been reinforced for obnoxious or pushy behavior. It's also possible to do this with a tug toy, but, in any case, practice your technique in advance—accidental nips and grabs are no fun!
Split criteria. Then, split it finer. And even finer! Criteria-splitting is the single biggest error made with crazy dogs. Trainers and handlers tend to "lump," failing to break behavior into achievable pieces. What would seem like an ideal increment for a more typical dog is really a tremendous leap for "crazy" dogs. When success isn't achieved quickly, these dogs load energy and release it in hectic and undesirable behavior. (It's at that point that some owners or trainers decide to use compulsion or coercion to control the dog.)
The thing to remember is that the dog can always win. If the dog knows there's a right answer and that he can achieve his click, he will not stop trying to get it. There will be problems only if the criteria are not appropriate or if all the pent-up energy is not relieved appropriately.
When I worked with my young dog, Laev, I taught stationary duration behaviors in quarters or eighths of seconds initially. I've worked with other dogs and taught them to tolerate a handler's departure with the slight movement of one shoe. Once the dog has the idea and develops the necessary self-control, increments can be increased substantially, and the larger behaviors can be achieved (a three minute stay, for example). Always start small.
Provide an energy release. Most people don't realize how stressful learning can be. Stress isn't necessarily bad. In fact, sometimes it's not distress, but eustress (a pleasant or curative stress). Stress does still take a toll on the dog, though. Many dogs indicate that they need a break by losing attention, wandering away, or sniffing. My favorite crazy dogs indicate fatigue by launching themselves at you or another attractive outlet, or by jumping, nipping and barking.
There has to be a way for the dog to dump energy, and it should almost always be through movement. Play tug, prompt a favorite active trick, or simply move about. Place this release behavior on cue early in training and use it to release energy when the dog has been demonstrating a good deal of self-control or otherwise working hard.
If the dog explodes energetically outside of the cue, that means the training has continued too long or an unrealistic jump in criteria was attempted. Adjust the training and try again.
Use active behaviors. Passive behaviors are much more difficult for crazy dogs than active behaviors—the dogs have to contain themselves! Behaviors which involve movement allow a constant release of that mental energy and are less likely to lead to explosive outbursts. This is why a crazy dog can retrieve or search for much longer than he can practice his down stay, which seems to be a much less complicated behavior.
This is useful information for managing dogs in daily life. Is the dog stressed by an outside influence, perhaps a stranger or a rude dog? Instead of "sit and watch," as many teach, ask the dog for a heel, a spin, or a leaping target. The movement helps dispel stress much more efficiently and still provides the benefits of a focused behavior.
Is your crazy dog too enthusiastic at the door? Instead of teaching "sit" to greet, which is very tough for these dogs, teach the dog to fetch a toy and bring it to the new arrival, holding it in his mouth as he is petted. This gives the dog a place to channel his energy (his jaws) while also preventing mouthing or licking.
Be proactive. The problem with crazy dogs is that they are faster than humans, mentally as well as physically. By the time you realize you've encountered a challenge, your dog might have evaluated several behavioral options and settled on what makes the most sense to her—something you probably do not want!
At the educated end of the leash, your job is to instruct the dog about what will pay off best—well before that scenario arises. Dogs load energy too quickly to interrupt them once they're reacting (although they can learn that later). Catch them before they lose their focus.
In the end, crazy dogs show some of the most dramatic transformations, from happy, brash, and crashing maniacs to happy, enthusiastic, and focused partners. That's reinforcing to all of us.