Is it a bit late in the day to be teaching Teddy new tricks? I had a masterclass in dog behaviour from dog trainer The Dog Nanny, aka Deborah Colella, recently. Ted has developed a habit of getting feisty with excitable dogs: often the terribly cute, rambunctious ones who bowl up to him and want to play. This is a problem for two reasons: I really don’t want to see Ted being unfriendly (the growling, the barking is pretty embarrassing), and I really want not to spend our walks with my eyes on stalks, looking out for the next bouncy pup – it’s stressy.
The Dog Nanny suggested teaching Teddy the ‘leave it’ command. We met on Hampstead Heath and, after a chat with me and a treat for Ted, Teddy was attached to a neon long-lead (read why this is a clever choice of training lead on the the following blog post Brilliant Long Dog Leash).
My job was to hold the lead loosely, while Deborah took Teddy’s favourite squeaky ball and placed it a metre or two away. Ted watched and I had to say ‘leave it’ in a positive, upbeat voice as soon as the ball went on the floor. When he, inevitably, went for the ball, I held him back. After straining for a bit, Teddy tore his attention away from the ball, and looked back at me as if to say, ‘What?” As soon as he did that, I had to give him praise and a treat.
After a few goes at this, Ted was looking back at me for the treat almost as soon as I said ‘leave it’. “Quick learner,” said Deborah. (Is it wrong that I was proud?)
Soon we had no option but to take it up a notch. A Labrador wandered over. Luckily he was lardy not bouncy, but with the lead loosely in my hand, and plenty to spare, Deborah talked me through what to do.
1. Check body language. In Teddy’s case, if he’s not on tippy toes, making direct eye contact or growling, say “leave it” and give Ted a treat when he looks at me.
2. If either dog gets potentially feisty, encourage Teddy away. Do something fun – with the lead in hand – like run in the opposite direction, make merry, and have it sound like a game.
3. Give him his treat and use the ultimate reward (a throw of his ball) after he has come away.
She also told me to breathe. I was more tense than Ted. And I’m sure, like all the books say, I was making things worse because I was expecting trouble where there was in fact, none. It all worked well – I only had to say ‘leave it’, then Ted looked to me and the Lab lumbered on.
Ted’s uptake was impressive and we weren’t out there long. Before she left, Deborah gave me some extra pointers.
1. Give Ted treats after every positive encounter with another dog, even if he has just ignored it. It’s called ‘rewarding desired responses’.
2. When there are more distractions about (ie. other dogs), reinforce that looking back to me is what I’d like Ted to do by saying ‘leave it’ again as soon as he turns back.
3. Eventually leave the long line dragging and only pick it up when you think there may be a situation brewing.
Finally, according to the Dog Nanny, “Doggy politeness is often not what everyone thinks it is. And anyway, no one needs to be friends with everyone.” Maybe that’s the point. I’ll let you know how it goes.