Teaching your dog to be polite
Q: Our dog jumps and barks, happily, when people come to the door. We have tried to work on teaching him to sit politely. He is so excited, that he cannot seem to control himself. The food treats just aren’t motivating enough to achieve good manners. The visitor is more rewarding than the treats. If treats can’t beat the visitor, how can we teach him to be polite at the door?
A: People often think that dog training is about teaching skills. That once the dog knows a skill such as sit, then the dog ought to do it. Unfortunately, it does not usually work this way. Families are disappointed when treats fail in the midst of real world distractions.
While it may seem that cookies cannot beat great distractions, they absolutely can. The problem is that many dogs have a long, robust history with visitors at the door. Arriving guests predict attention, treats, petting and maybe even belly rubs. Dogs become understandably excited. They are right in their expectations. The door does predict fun.
Waving a cookie in the face of an over aroused dog then fails. The dog is too excited to want food. Skills that the dog can do at other times, fall apart. Neither treats, nor the skill of sitting politely is strong enough to hold up to the excitement of arriving guests.
Think of those two behaviours, sitting and jumping, like two people arm wrestling. One individual has strong arms. They have exercised extensively and built muscle mass. The other is new to fitness and thus much weaker. We would expect the strong individual to beat the weaker one. Obviously, in order to win, the weaker individual needs to pump more iron and build strength.
Competing behaviours are like those two people. Rushing the door is a strong, well rehearsed behaviour. Sitting politely is weaker by comparison. It has little hope of winning unless good manners are rehearsed and strengthened.
Drill sitting while pretending to walk to the door. Work toward the goal of opening it and greeting pretend guests. Work on manners while ringing the doorbell or knocking. Record these sounds to make drilling easier. Finally, drill around willing helpers.
Pay the dog for each right answer with food. Use safety precautions such as tethers if necessary.
Each repetition is a step toward strengthening good manners. Treats may not work well on an over-aroused dog facing difficult distractions. They do work on smaller, manageable steps. Split large goals. Work through easier distractions first. As arousal decreases and good manners become stronger, the odds start to tip towards the good manners, revealing a food motivated dog.
Q: What is the difference between a behaviourist and a dog trainer? Which is better to hire when looking for manners classes?
A: Chances are there is little to no difference between these two designations. Someone with a master’s degree or veterinary degree plus certification as a behaviourist would be called either a Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist (CAAB) or a Certified Applied Veterinary Behaviourist (CAVB). These are protected terms, meaning that only those with very precise qualifications can use them.
Dog training as a whole is unregulated. Dog owners will see a wide range of titles. Anything goes.
Where it gets a little sticky is that the term behaviourist implies a degree where a degree may not exist. Many trainers avoid the term to avoid accidental misrepresentation.
Buyer beware. Honesty in terms of qualifications is a start. If someone implies educational credentials that are not warranted, then run, don’t walk, the other way. A competent dog trainer can easily help with basic manners.
Yvette Van Veen is a Dorchester-based writer and a contributor for the Star. Reach her via email: