Going Back to the Basics: Re-training ‘Rusty’ Dogs
We’ve all been there before. We train our dog to an impeccable level of obedience – first time obedience, great focus, solid eye contact, bombproof training – and then, well, life gets in the way. This happens…that happens…and before you know it it’s been six months and you find yourself repeating commands, your dog has become complacent and sloppy, and you’re frustrated that all your hard work has been for ‘nothing.’ Or so you think. Yes, your dog’s training has gone down the toilet, but the good news is that it’s really easy to get your dog back to where he used to be. It just takes seven days (give or take) of intentional training to bring your dog up to speed.
Dogs aren’t like collectible cars. You can’t wash them, wax them and clean the upholstery then cover them up, leave them for six months, and expect them to look exactly the way you left them. Dogs are living, breathing creatures who need structure, leadership, consistency, physical and mental exercise and, you guessed it, regular training.
If your dog’s training has gotten sloppy, here are a few tips for getting things back on track:
(Note: These tips will also help with newly-adopted dogs who’ve had training in the past.)
-Ditch the training collar.We’re going back to the basics here. You’re going to use a slip lead for the next few days. We won’t be forcing your dog to do anything; we’re starting the same way we started training in the very beginning: with good motivation, clear communication and of course relationship.
-Don’t feed your dog dinner tonight. We need to motivate your dog to want to train, and food is a primary instinctual motivator for dogs. Your dog is hardwired to work for it, so we’re going to use that to our advantage as we go back to the basics in training. If your dog is an extra picky eater, skip two meals if necessary. The goal is to build your dog’s appetite so that he’ll work for his dog food (yes, kibble) and not treats. We train with kibble, and we use treats if needed around outside distractions.
-Shut up. No, seriously. Stop talking to your dog and constantly doting on him. It’s excessive, unnecessary, and for some dogs annoying. Praise, petting, smiling at your dog and making eye contact with him will all become secondary (or conditioned) reinforcers that we’ll use as rewards during training. Additionally, there’s a hugely underestimated value to silence in that the less you talk, the MORE your dog will listen to you.
-Structure, Structure, Structure. For the next week, your dog has three options: crate, place bed and tethered to you. Those are his three options. If your dog isn’t crate trained, crate train your dog. If your dog doesn’t know the place bed, well, that’s a topic for another day. If you don’t know what tethering is, it’s basically putting your dog on a slip lead (leash/collar combo) and having him hang out with you in the house. Tethering doesn’t need to be done hours on end, 15-30 minutes at a time is long enough. During this structure phase, all freedom is revoked: no off leash time, no play time with other dogs, no running around the house. None of it. Nada, Zip, Zero. You need to be the highlight of your dog’s day. You need your dog to want to be around here in a constructive, productive manner. If you have two dogs, guess what, your work load just doubled.
-Foundation training: I won’t go into detail on how each of these works. If you’re my client (present or past), you know what I’m talking about. Recommended training drills are The Name Game, Luring, Place Bed Training, Sit/Stay and Down/Stay (duration first building up to 90 seconds, then distance up to 20 ft then distractions last), Two Treat Recall Exercise, PreHeeling Drills and so on. You can even throw a few tricks in there if you want to change things up a bit. But keep obedience 90% of what you’re doing. Tricks are great for mental stimulation, but they aren’t part of day-to-day stuff for real life training. Remember to keep your sessions short and simple and do them often.
-Remember how I said I want you to be the highlight of your dog’s day? I mean it. If your dog attends doggie daycare, he needs to stay home instead. If your dog is used to being out and about, getting pet by everyone, get an “In Training” vest, slap it on, and use it as a reminder for both yourself and your dog that you’re here to train not socialize. The exception to this “rule” is that other family members can work with your dog. Your dog can/should obey everyone in the family so the more they work with the dog, the better.
-Don’t cheat. Don’t feed your dog ‘free’ meals. Don’t let your dog socialize ‘just a little.’ We’re trying to unwind several months of careless dog ownership (perhaps lazy is a better word than careless) so that means you need to be diligent. If today isn’t a good day to start but Sunday is, then wait to start until Sunday. A few extra days of sloppy obedience won’t necessary hurt anything. It’ll just be a good reminder of how excited you are for Sunday!
After the first week, re-evaluate your dog’s training. Is he focused? Is he obeying commands right away? Is his stay reliable? Is he ignoring other people and dogs? If so, excellent. Pat yourself on the back, you’ve done a good job! If not, go back and review the list and see what needs to change. Does your dog need more exercise (hello, treadmill!), more structure, more consistency? Chances are – and remember we’re working with a pre-trained dog who simply got rusty NOT a brand new dog to training – you’ve broken the rules so your dog is simply doing (or not doing) what he’s allowed to do. Motivation is important. Communication is important. Relationship is important. If your dog is cuddling with you for hours on end, and you wake him up from a nap to train chances are he isn’t going to be super motivated to work for you. He’d rather go back to sleep (and c’mon, can you blame him?). If your dog is in his crate alone for a few hours then you come in to work with him, he’s going to be more than ready to come out of his crate and train. *insert motivation here* In my option, motivation and communication are the two biggest keys to success. Relationship is a close third but third nonetheless. When you’re going back to the basics, you need a motivated dog who clearly understands what you want (and don’t want) him to do. And before I forget: Stop repeating commands! Demand first time obedience. Give the command then follow through. 🙂
If you’re pleased with where your dog is at in training, add the training collar if needed to hold your dog accountable for his behavior and begin proofing your dog’s training to more distractions. Increase duration. Increase distance. Increase everything. But remember, at the end of the day, training should be fun and functional. So do what matters most to you, and when your dog is back to being a flashy, obedient, impressive dog, do your best to maintain that level of obedience. Consistency is 10x easier than going back to the basics.
For current and past clients who are interested in fine-tuning their dog’s training, I offer drop-in classes 1-2x per month. Check the Facebook events page to see where we’re meeting up next!
Good luck and happy training!
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