About three months ago I was asked to train and walk a beautiful, 9 month old Golden Retriever. When I met with his owners they listed a number of specific behaviours that they wanted modified and also wanted him to learn basic obedience skills, specifically loose lead walking. I observed the dog with his owners and he quickly demonstrated all the undesirable behaviours they had listed for attention – jumping up, counter surfing, taking and running off with any accessible item he could reach and grabbing onto any item of clothing such as a scarf or shirt that he could tug at.
I offered and demonstrated all the usual solutions, praising the good behaviour and ignoring the inappropriate behaviour. Distraction, managing the environment to reduce the opportunity to practice inappropriate behaviour and so on. I stressed the need for consistency, the importance of having a constant supply of treats and the need for patience as behaviour change takes time.
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Initially, the loose lead walking was a real challenge as the dogs strategy, if not allowed to be off lead or to pull, was to simply lie down and firmly and adamantly refuse to budge. He was so determined not to move that initially I had to carry him to the car as his refusal to walk started inside his own front gate. Over a number of days with the use of a head harness, a flirt pole, lots of treats and my own dog to lend encouragement and demonstrate the need to get up and walk, he cooperated. He very quickly learnt to walk politely and calmly on the lead. His owners were soon able to manage walking him which they had previously been unable to do.
The other behaviours proved far more intractable. Each time I visited the dog continued to demonstrate all the undesirable behaviours with his owner struggling to consistently implement the strategies I had suggested. I continued to stress the importance of these strategies as well as offering some alternatives. There was some minor improvement interspersed with displays of what can only be termed ‘acting out’ or attention seeking behaviour where the dog leapt on and off pieces of furniture, grabbed things and generally behaved like a boundary testing toddler. Over time it became apparent that his behaviour was gradually wearing down his owners who, although they loved the dog dearly, were exhausted and becoming defeated by his behaviour.
Fortunately just as their patience was wearing thin his owners left for 3 weeks holiday and the dog came to stay with me and my family. Having him come and stay taught me so many lessons as a dog trainer. I had not appreciated the extent or the durability of the dogs behaviour and had totally underestimated the difficulty of living with it. As I hadn’t had him as a young puppy I had not modified my house to accommodate him and he had free reign of the house which he proceeded to use as a source of entertainment, running off with everything he could reach, stealing food from the kitchen benchtops and generally causing havoc by demonstrating the behaviours his owners had complained of.
We rapidly screened off our living are to make it a dog free and implemented some other changes, like removing rugs and placing as many objects as possible out of reach. These measures helped and naturally, I continued to implement the training strategies I had suggested to his owners. His behaviour improved over the weeks, especially when he was supervised, but when unsupervised he would get up to all kinds of mischief. His most intractable behaviour was his constant need to grab and carry off whatever he could get hold of. It didn’t take me long to realise that the best way to deal with this ‘retriever behaviour” was to let him be a retriever and encourage his to focus on retrieving permitted objects such as his toys or other permitted objects. When he got hold of other objects I encouraged him to bring them to us and happily relinquish them. This change of mindset ie accepting and shaping this retrieving behaviour rather than trying to eradicate it, created a shift in his training as I was able to focus on more important aspects of his behaviour such as calmness and impulse control. Over the weeks he became calmer and more settled and much easier to live with. By the time he went back to his owners I felt confident they would see a distinct improvement in his behaviour and find him a better behaved and far more pleasant and relaxing companion.
Some of the valuable lessons I learnt from this experience included being much more understanding about the difficulties for owners of implementing training strategies when the dog is highly active and demanding. I realized I probably needed to be providing a higher level of support to owners and to be more aware of the physical and emotional toll a puppy or young dog can take on a household. By living with the dog I was able to gain an insider’s view of his behaviour and its consequences. As a day trainer one is sheltered from so many aspects of the dog’s behavior as one leaves at the end of session but the owner is left to deal with the dog 24 hours a day while still having to continue with their normal lives. Obviously, the experience differs depending on the particular dog, the breed, the living circumstances, the dog’s history and many other factors but I will certainly be far more sensitive to the owner’s experiences of their dogs from now on.