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Monday, October 6, 2014

Training: My Teenage Dog

Shyla, who started out as a very fearful dog when I met her 2 years ago, has gained tremendous confidence in our "home environment" so that she seems happy and comfortable most of the time.

Way back when our trainer began helping me and Shyla to cope with her fears, the trainer warned me that, when Shyla's confidence blossomed, she might also go through a less-reliable phase, kind of like a teenager.

The good news is that, except in bustling towns, Shyla has become much more confident. The bad news is that my trainer was right, and Shyla has become more difficult to control on the trails than she was when I first met her.

In particular, there is one trail where I really want her to be reliable because there's lots of wildlife activity. And - just my luck - that's the primary place where Shyla's teenage behavior is incredibly obvious.

This trail has the remains of many dead animals cached in the woods within scenting distance. Some are fresh kills by predators and others are very old. Shyla is fascinated by all of them.

When she was still a wary and worried dog out on the trails, Shyla listened to me, pretty much no matter what. If I said "come", she ran to me. If I said "sit", she sat whereever she was. If I said "leave it", she turned away from the scent or object that she was focused on.

In about June, that began to change. At first, she blew me off in small ways that were no big deal. For example, I'd say "look", which means to look me in the eyes, and she'd do this.
Her expression looks pretty for a photo but it's not "look". I'd repeat myself, and she'd pull her eyes away from whatever interested her and look at me.
Now, that's a "look'!

Over the course of the summer, Shyla started ignoring more important commands and sometimes straying on that "wildlife trail" that I talked about at the beginning. That really scared me, and my reaction was to get cranky with her. I tried using "no" when she was moving away from me after I called her. That was a royal failure -  all that did was make her look scared when she came back to me.

I realized that I was making my fearful dog afraid of *me*! That's the last thing I wanted.

So, I finally called our trainer and said that we had a problem. I told her the story that I just told you, with special emphasis on Shyla's bad behavior on the wildlife trail. Her advice was that I had to make myself much more interesting than anything else in the world when we're on that trail. The trainer suggested making the length of that trail our primary training area, doing tons of recalls, tricks, and games.

On Day 1, we played one of Shyla's favorite games on that trail - Waving at me!
It makes her so happy to do that trick. And I acted as if she'd just won the Nobel Prize for Dogs each time she did it.
We didn't just do tricks but we did lots of recalls, with me sprinting away from Shyla as she chased me in a recall.

By adding this fun training to our lives, you would NOT believe how rapidly Shyla's behavior improved. Within a day, she was turning away from those enticing dead animal body parts to return to me. I was carrying extra-special treats and a favorite toy as rewards. I lavished her with praise every time she had a success. We are only a week into this new program but I can already tell that it's working.

I know this post is getting long but there was one other thing that I started doing a week ago. If Shyla would bring me whatever treasure she'd found next to the trail, I gave her a jackpot of treats. Then, I returned the "treasure" to her to play with (or gnaw on) for a little while. So, I was rewarding her for bringing me the icky treasure by letting her have it back for a little while. It's counterintuitive but it's an established animal training technique (called the Premack Principle).

On Day 1, she was too afraid to take the icky treasure back from me. By Day 3, she was more than happy to! In this case, it was an elk lower leg and hoof.
The most important aspect of this program is that it is strengthening the bond between Shyla and me. In contrast, back when I was yelling "no" and acting angry when Shyla blew me off, it was weakening our bond.
The wonderful effect on the human-dog bond is the biggest reason why I love positive training. As a fallible human, it's easy to fall into the bad habit of yelling "no" at naughty behavior rather than thinking creatively about how to use positive techniques to shape good behavior. I'm so glad that my trainer reminded me of how to do that!


  1. Shyla is a smart girl and it sure sounds like you are communicating wonderfully!

  2. i like the trust you've built up in the 'icky' treats bringing and returning. hadn't considered that avenue. :)

  3. Great work and thanks for sharing. All these tips help us too:)

  4. Great work! Nola had an absolutely terrible teenage phase that still makes me shudder, haha. I wasn't as well informed as a I am now, and it lead to frustration on both parts. Luckily we've worked through it, though!

  5. Interesting. We have never had a fearful dog. I think it would be frustrating and I'm delighted you and Shyla can work things out. Glad your trainer's tips work.

  6. Great post. It wasn't too long -- the details are important. Thanks!

  7. It easy to yell NO first! Sounds like you're getting a handle on your teenager.

  8. Great post and advice. I have the same issue with Maggie - I can't be too forceful, it just scares her. I"m going to try this more playful attitude and see if it helps with here "stubborness".

  9. Absolutely love this post! thank you for sharing. we love positive training
    Mr Bailey, Hazel & Mom

  10. I love the bond that you have with Shyla and I really love that you share your stories with us. It helps everyone! These pictures are amazing! I'm so glad that Shyla is responding. The photo of her waving her just precious!!

  11. This is a very helpful post! Thanks for sharing :)

  12. What a great post! You and Shyla are a fabulous team, KB!

  13. Proof that positive reinforcements work wonders!!! So proud of Shyla - she is amazing and so very smart. And cute.

  14. We use the Premack Principle in agility training. A solid start line stay is rewarded by a fast turn through the tunnel or running the course.

    Is Shyla getting a few premature gray hairs on her chin? She's still just a baby!

  15. Good job Shyla. It's very important to listen to mom instead of trying to find stinky animals
    Lily & Edward

  16. Yes, the human/canine relationship is the most impawtent!

    Your Pals,

    Murphy & Stanley

  17. Hi Y'all!

    I'm 8 years old. I'll be 9 in March. My Human still carries treats for me, even if we're just going out in the yard. I still get a reward for going potty on schedule. I also get rewarded any time I come to her when we're off hikin', whether she called me or not.

    Y'all hurry by now,
    Hawk aka BrownDog


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