Don't let Halloween go to dog; train pup instead

October 28, 2008 

There are few holidays that offer as many dog training opportunities as Halloween. With Tait now nearly 11 months old, I am eagerly planning out the evening and will take advantage of every training possibility.

Although Tait has met more than 300 people, the early evening will provide him the opportunity to view more people in every shape and size.

With his Gentle Leader and leash attached, I will stand with him on my driveway and verbally reward behavior that I like as he visually checks out each costumed passer-by. If he becomes at all reactive, a quick pull on the leash, coupled with the offering of a tasty treat, will be all that's needed to distract him for a moment to prevent any inappropriate behavior. As is always the case, he will be showered with positive reinforcement for all polite behavior.

Once the sun has set, we will go inside and practice our doorbell manners. I do not wish my dogs to bark when someone rings our doorbell. This is a personal preference; with numerous dogs living indoors, it is paramount to our sanity that all dogs remain quiet when someone comes to our door. This is easy to accomplish and fun as well.

As I hear people coming up the steps, I will scatter a dozen treats on the floor and allow Tait to begin his cookie hunt. When the doorbell rings, he will be busy on his task; he can't possibly bark and eat at the same time! This prevents bothersome door barking from becoming a habit and reinforces how nice it is for Tait to have people come to the door -- their presence equals treats!

We have been working on Tait's "Settle" for a while now, and Halloween will offer some great distractions to proof this exercise. When given his "Settle" cue, Tait is to lie down and remain in that spot until given his release cue. As I hear people coming up the steps, I will give him this "Settle" cue. Initially, I will toss him a treat about every five seconds, to reinforce his settled position. As the training session progresses, I will raise my expectations and criteria, and will only reinforce about every 10 to 15 seconds. Once the trick-or-treaters leave, I will release him, but not always immediately; his release cue will be given at random times after we have closed the front door, so Tait doesn't assume that the closing door means it's his time to get up.

Another cue that is ready for some distraction work is attention. Tait has been taught to "watch me" on cue. He consistently raises his eyes to meet mine when given this cue, as long as there is little distraction present. Halloween, of course, offers numerous opportunities for greater distraction work. Keeping this in mind, I know that watching me on cue with all that will be going on around him is asking quite a bit, so I plan to offer him his apex reward: a game of tug for each correct "watch me" response.

A new cue that I will begin to shape is the "leave it" cue. Like all cues, this can be taught many ways, and may have different meanings for each individual. In Tait's world, "leave it" will mean, "Don't touch it: not now, not ever."

I prefer to teach this concept using only items that will never be appropriate for Tait to touch, pick up, or otherwise molest in any way: a roll of toilet paper, the television remote, our guinea pigs, the dish towel, etc. Since there will be plenty of Halloween goodies around, I will begin with a piece of candy. With Tait facing me, I will drop the candy at my side; as he moves to investigate it, I will step in front of it, blocking his access, and say, "Leave it." Any attempts he makes to get around me to check out the goodie on the floor will be met with me stepping in between him and the treat and again repeating, "Leave it."

Regardless of how many attempts he makes to get at the item, when he ceases this activity he will be rewarded with praise and a treat; he will receive a bonus treat or game of tug if he avoids the dropped item and looks at me instead.

It's a good thing I have a willing husband to answer the door and hand out goodies, as it appears I will be too busy working with Tait to do anything else!

Lisa Moore's pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Weekly Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.

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