My 21-month-old black Labrador Retriever, Cody, is healthy, mellow and loving. He has no medical problems and is a great pal. But he is stubborn if he is afraid. I just coax him and assure him all is well.
My problem is that sometimes when he is out of sight, Cody pretends he doesn’t hear me. If he sees another dog, he wants to play and doesn’t listen as well as he should. If it is a girl, forget about it. Will he outgrow this behavior? He is nearly perfect and I have trained him since he was 8 weeks old.
Also, he hates going to the veterinarian. Can you provide any help?
– Ginger, San Francisco
You’ve been training Cody since he was 8 weeks old? If I were there, I’d pat you on the back and shake your hand. Well done! You’ve already laid the groundwork for further training you’ll do with Cody.
There are a number of things you can do with Cody to lead him to believe that whatever you’re saying, from wherever he is, is better than whatever he’s doing at the moment. Focus on getting good eye contact with Cody. When you teach him eye contact, you’ll be giving him some treats, playing fun games and other great stuff. So when he hears his name, he’ll wonder what awesome event you have planned. To teach eye contact, first get him used to the word “Yes!” being a positive thing.
Get a handful of small treats and just sit on a chair near him. He’ll sniff your hand, then look at you for a moment like, “Well?” That’s the moment you say, “Yes!” very enthusiastically, when he glances at you, while giving him a small treat or a piece of his kibble if it’s meal time. Timing is critical – the eye contact should immediately be met with “Yes!” and a treat. Now start moving your hand holding the treats around slowly. When his glance goes from your hand to your eyes, say “Yes!” each and every time, and give him a treat.
Keep the training session short – just a few minutes. The next time, about a half-hour later, raise your criteria for him. He has to maintain eye contact with you for just a bit longer than in the first session before he gets the treat, but continue to say, “Yes!” the millisecond he looks at you. Be sure to smile at him during eye contact, and then give him the treat reward. Remember that you need to increase your enthusiasm when asking for eye contact when there are any distractions. Use your voice and frequent small treats along with tons of praise for good behavior and eye contact.
Continue these sessions throughout the day, giving him about half an hour to an hour in between, if it’s a weekend. When you’re getting some nice, lengthy attention from Cody, about one full second, it’s time to put him on leash and walk him around the house very briefly. Be really animated, saying his name in a very upbeat and enthusiastic way and immediately rewarding.
You’re getting him in the habit of actually paying attention to you when he’s on leash. At this point the distraction is minimal, but, of course, being outside is much more distracting for him – particularly the girls you mentioned! It’s very important to work at this part slowly. Build successful, short sessions indoors, and then out in the backyard before you try a very brief walk just a few house-lengths down your block. Remember that you need to be more interesting than the environment, which is a monumental task. Use your voice and frequent small treats along with tons of praise for good behavior and eye contact.
This exercise has a very nice side effect; he’ll start wanting to interact with you more and more on walks and in general if you are consistent with his attention training. It’s kind of a mental leash that helps him, along with these other exercises, want to turn and run to you when he hears his name. (Please note: If he’s not neutered, your real test with the training will be when he sees a female dog walking his way! Be extra careful at those times. Make sure his leash is held securely. Instinct may cause him to bolt away from you before you’ve had time to train this exercise sufficiently.)
His focus must readily and frequently turn to you to prevent his pulling and jumping up on people. The ultimate goal is for Cody to look at you when anybody approaches, and you can then ask him to “sit” before allowing him to greet (with feet on the ground) new people and dogs. After a few months, you’ll be very used to communicating with Cody all the time during your walks, which is ideal. Use this idea of “constant communication” in your everyday life with Cody. If he’s in another room, call his name really enthusiastically while clapping your hands. When he gets to you, give him a tasty little treat (after he sits, of course), then release him. The next time, have fun play session. The more you do this, the better chance you have of his hearing improving when you’re out of his sight.
When he doesn’t respond, run out the door fast. He’s depending on what happened in the past, which was your calling him a number of times and then going get him. He figures he has plenty of time. If you take off right away when he doesn’t come over to you, he’ll realize “Uh-Oh! I just missed out on something good!” Come back inside after a few minutes, and simply ignore him for half an hour. No talking and no eye contact. He won’t want you to take off again the next time you call him, so his probability of high-tailing it over to you the first (and only) time you call his name is much higher.
Concerning his distain at going to the vet’s office, again, you’re on the right track. I think it may help to bring Cody to the office to just visit and give him treats. I suggest bringing Cody in for brief training sessions (30 seconds or so). Use your best cheerleading skills, praising and treating him with his all-time favorite treat. Hopefully, you live near enough to the vet to be able to do this at least a dozen times before his exam. You can even pop in and out all day on a Saturday and Sunday, with Cody in the car running errands with you in between the sessions. If someone pets him at the vet’s office, fine, but the goal is for you to start building a history of fun, short, non-medical visits to the vet. His attitude should shift towards willingly entering the clinic — that’s fine, he doesn’t have to be in love with the idea, just relaxed enough to pay attention to your constant communication and be compliant throughout the exam.
Remember that fear and anxiety are default reactions for Cody so it’s critical to continually distract him with training all throughout the time you’re waiting and when he’s actually getting an exam. The vet can help out by giving Cody some great treats you’ve brought along, and by giving him basic commands that help the exam along like Sit, Stand and Down. Also, please bring a length of plastic, non-skid shelf liner (the kind that looks a bit like lace) and make sure the exam table is totally slip-proof. Big dogs in particular slip, slide, and can get really anxious because of the exam table surface. Bring the liner each and every time; he needs it! A towel doesn’t do the job because it slides around, too. Finally, during the entire exam, be actively praising and treating him (he may not always take a treat – that’s OK). Just be sure not to sound like you feel sorry for him. Be upbeat.
Along with all of these suggestions, it would be fun and certainly worthwhile to enroll him in a group class where the instructor uses positive reinforcement and motivational techniques. A group class is a perfect place to “prove” your prior training with him. Remember that training needs to be brought to real life scenarios, and sometime you almost need to start from scratch with a command when your dog goes from the living room to a group setting. It would feel great to have Cody showing off his eye-contact skills when there are so many distractions around!
A good place to start your search for a trainer is the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). At the Trainer Search link, just type in your zip code and a list of trainers and what they offer will come up. Call at least three or four of them before deciding on which class to enroll in with Cody. APDT trainers don’t train in a competitive environment; individual progress is the goal. You live in a city with many APDT members and the San Francisco SPCA has wonderful group classes to offer. Let me know how you and Cody progress with your training!