House rules and time-outs

Last week on our Facebook page, we mentioned that we were about to start the time-outs regimen with Mr. Doodlebug for house rule infractions — in that specific instance, it was barking through the window at people walking by our house. We got a few cries of “tell us more!” and we promised . . . so now we deliver.

Although we use positive reinforcement for most of our training, we also think there’s a place for negative consequence for bad behavior. Not old-school punishment or intimidation (yelling, jerking, squirting with water, hitting), but just consequence — removal of the positive. Time-outs for house rules do just that. We learned about this from our trainer Lee Mannix years ago, and have been reminded of it lately by his successor — and my boss — Shari at the Canine Center in Austin.

In our home, the dog rules that have needed teaching — Chick a few years ago and Dude now — are (1) no jumping on the furniture without permission (Chick and Dude); (2) no jumping up on company when they come over (Chick); (3) no barking out the windows at everyday things (Dude); and (4) no stealing human food off tables or counters (Chick and Dude).

Here’s how we do it. We clip a long, thin line (this can be nylon cord or rope or a very thin leash — NOT the regular walking leash) on to the Dude’s collar, and let him drag it around the house whenever we’re home. When he breaks a rule, we grab the tail end of the cord and start walking toward a designated “time out” spot — in our case, the bathroom. As soon as there is tension on the line, we say our “time-out” words in a cheerful voice — never angry. This can be whatever word you choose to designate to mean “you just broke a rule, too bad for you.” We walk the dog in to time out (never talking to the dog or touching him, just walking him in), shut the door, and leave him in there for 20 minutes (though if a dog barks or whines — neither of ours does this — the 20 min starts from when silence begins). At the end of 20 min, the dog is released and ignored for a few minutes, then normal life resumes. If he goes right back to the naughty activity, another time out.

The Dude and his time-out line

We’ve heard and read that dogs learn in repetitions of 4 or 6, and we’ve found this to be true. If we are consistent and catch a dog in the act 4-6 times in a row, he will stop breaking that rule. However, dogs don’t generalize well, so you may teach your dog not to bark out the living room window, but then he thinks it’s still ok to bark out the kitchen window or the screen door. A lot of dogs need the full 4-6 reps at each spot before they understand the rule applies to that specific circumstance too.

For this to work, the house rules have to be clear and agreed-upon by all members of the household, and everybody must participate. You also have to be able to interrupt the behavior every time it happens — so if you want to teach your dog not to bark at the window, you have to keep your dog away from the window when you’re not in the house to supervise. A crate, a bedroom in the back of the house, or even some physical barriers (sticky paper or window shades) can help. Same with counter-surfing — if you want to teach your dog not to steal things off the counter, don’t leave things on the counter when you’re not there to catch her in the act. Sending an inconsistent message –sometimes stealing will land you in jail, and sometimes nothing will happen and you’ll get to eat a box of donuts — will only confuse your dog and teach her to be quicker and stealthier in her pursuits.

Naturally, this method isn’t a substitute for good old-fashioned obedience training and relationship-building, which should be the foundation of any dog’s good behavior program. If you have a dog who’s just unruly and wild, doesn’t know any rules and doesn’t seem to listen — or a dog who doesn’t much care whether he’s where you are or not, it’s best to do some good training before or during this process. If you’ve tried obedience training — and done all your homework — and you haven’t made the progress you’d like, it may be time to find a different trainer or training center.

Timeout can be anywhere that the fun is not.

And finally — this is really important — time-outs should be used only for bad habits, and NOT for behavioral issues related to fear or anxiety. Fear and anxiety are deep-rooted issues that should be resolved slowly and delicately with an experienced trainer’s help. Putting a dog in time-out for panic-induced chewing or fear-induced growling can only exacerbate the problem by teaching the dog that there really IS a good reason to be scared or anxious.

We first learned about the use of time-outs when we were training Chick years ago at the training center where I now am an intern/apprentice. They worked like a charm. Within a few days, he was a changed dog, and to this day he remembers the meaning of our time-out word. We haven’t used them for most of our fosters, but now that we have a window-and-doorbell-barker, we’re back at it again. Has anybody implemented a time-out system for house rules? How has it worked for you?


School Days: Leash walking and toy play

Last week we reported on the Dude’s first night of a six-week class which will (hopefully) teach him to be basically obedient. We’re now finishing up week two, and headed to the third class tonight!

Dude’s second session focused on proper leash walking, as well as the importance of toy play. Duderino was already good and exhausted relaxed from having spent all day at the training center with mama, who was working all afternoon. So he was nice and calm by the time class started in the evening.

We started the session with some tiedown approaches (where we clip his leash in to a carabiner and walk away, waiting for him to sit and relax before coming back to pet on him and praise him). Only a few of the dogs in class struggled with this exercise, but the Dude really blew the others all away — in fact, he was laying down in frogdog pose within seconds of being clipped in! We often start class with this exercise because it’s so helpful in focusing and chilling out the dogs.

Next, we were introduced to loose leash walking, with a strong focus on using the handler’s voice and emotion to help the dog remain engaged. When a dog feels the leash pressure on his neck, it’s easy for him to just walk on without worrying about whether we’re coming or not– he knows we are there. But if he is taught to walk on a loose leash, he has to be focused on where his walking companion is! A loose leash walk is much more work for the dog — mentally — than a pully one, and this is one of the goals of walking — an exhausted dog.

We also got to play with different walking equipment, to see what worked best for our dogs. The Dude is not a reactive dog, so a simple martingdale (no-slip) collar works just fine for him. But we also tried a step-in harness, which is attached via two points of contact and a double-ended leash (one clip to the dog’s back and one to the dog’s chest). The Dude seemed to respond well to this one too, and we’re adding it to our collection to use in more challenging walking situations. We refrained from trying any head-collars, which work nicely for more reactive dogs, especially when paired with a harness or martingdale and — again — a double-ended leash. More on these various equipment another time!

Finally, we worked on toy play. I know what you’re thinking — what does playing with toys have to do with basic obedience? Turns out it has a lot to do with it! Teaching a dog to love toys not only makes for a far more reliable recall than food does, but also builds a stronger relationship between the dog and the person — and if your dog thinks you’re fun, then your dog is going to be much more likely to do what you ask.


(1) practice loose leash walking in the back yard, setting up some cone-substitutes to do figure eights and weaves, turning frequently if the dog is tempted to pull. Once this is easy, start walking in front of the house — first just 40 feet, out and back. Once this is easy, double the distance. Once that’s easy, double again.

(2) Practice toy holding and play, by only petting the dog when he’s holding a toy in his mouth — all week! Put all the toys away, and only produce one when you decide it’s playtime. When the game is over — again — you decide — the toy goes away again. For the toy holding practice, if Dude approaches seeking attention, offer a toy. If he takes it, pet, praise, hug, whatever. The second he drops it, turn off all attention. This is a hard one, but a building block for future activities!

(3) Continue sit/release exercise, tiedown approaches, and sitting for food bowl from week 1.

So how’d we do? The leash walking was slow going, but we made some progress. By the fourth day, we were able to get down the front walk, down the driveway, and two houses away from ours on a loose leash. Then on Monday we tried out a new harness, and were able to make a lot more progress. We’re now juggling back and forth between the two, and hope to become proficient in each. The toy holding went well — when we remembered to do it. We often found ourselves petting or scratching the Doodlebug with no toys in sight, just out of habit — oops! But when we did offer a toy, he got better and better throughout the week at holding it while receiving his massage. This is a big deal for the Dude, who was most decidedly NOT a toy fanatic a couple of weeks ago. Score!

An update on Week 3 to come next week!

From here to there

The other day, we got our signed and counter-signed copy of the Dude’s official adoption contract back from the rescue. Although his adoption date is officially February 24, seeing that contract — all signed by everyone — really made it feel real in our heads. So we got to thinking — how did we get from here:

to here?

We’re not quite sure, but it makes us tear up a little to think about how close he was to the edge.

In a moment of facebook procrastination, I was reading back through the 500+ comments on Doodlebug’s (then “Red”) shelter photo in the Partners of Arlington Animal Services FB page announcing his scheduled euthanasia the following day. I was overwhelmed by how many people had pitched in a little bit of effort to help our boy find home — a few handfuls of monetary pledges to his rescue, several offers to transport him, and some long-distance requests to adopt.

He had only been there two weeks, but it seemed that he earned “favorite” status in his time at the Arlington, TX shelter — by the time our rescue Love-A-Bull agreed to take him, he had already been granted two or three “reprieves” from his schedule euthanasia. Most dogs are not so lucky. But the December 30 date was the last shot. And it turns out our rescue pulled him just in time. What a lucky dude.

But it was more than luck. Partners of Arlington Animal Services is an all-volunteer group dedicated to sharing, re-sharing, and re-re-sharing the photos, stats, and stories of animals on the endangered list at the Arlington, TX shelter. These folks — and a large community around them — work tirelessly to get the word out about dogs and cats in need, and some of these dogs end up winning the lottery — like the Dude.

Via Facebook, the Dude’s photo and rescue plea was shared 400+ times, including one life-saving share — with Love-A-Bull co-founder Lydia. Lydia gets dozens of dogs-in-need shared with her every day, but lucky Dude caught her eye — turns out he looks a whole lot like her love-of-her-life dog, Mocha:

One thing led to another, and the Dude was claimed by Love-A-Bull, overnight fostered by a volunteer, transported by another troupe of generous souls, stopped by our vet’s office to get checked out and fixed, and finally landed in our home three days later — on January 2.

Looking back, I think it’s the sheer volume of activity on Dude’s profile photo from the shelter — more than 500 comments and 400 shares — that is the most astounding to me. I have often been overwhelmed and, frankly, kind of irritated by the amount of energy poured into promoting the sad stories, urgent pleas for help, subtle blame game, and pathetic photos of terrified caged animals that are circulated via facebook as desperate efforts to inspire adoptions. I’ve often thought: sad photos of sad animals don’t work. They don’t inspire adoption or rescue. They only appeal to a small number of people, and those people are already doing everything they can. And in a lot of ways, I still do think that.

So it’s interesting to find ourselves on the opposite side of that equation — if not for the huge and dedicated underground railroad of advocates, shelter workers, volunteers, and facebook activists, Doodlebug would not be sleeping with his butt in my lap and his head on Chick’s hip. He would be dead.

Yes, I still believe that bigger-picture advocacy of adoption and pit bull type dogs in particular, and a strong focus on the positive / happy sides of adoptable animals are the better way forward. But in the meantime, we’re feeling pretty darn thankful for the tireless network that put this ‘Bug in our bed.

Ready to meet your own true love? Check out the adoptable sweethearts from Love-A-Bull!

Chix-A-Lot Friday: My new thundershirt

I got a new thundershirt, and I’ve got it on under this here blanket in this photo:

If you look real close, you can even see it:

That’s right, it’s not an actual thundershirt, it’s my brother the Doodlebug!

I turn into a little trembling fraidy-dog when the sky goes rumble-rumble and crackly-split, but my Dude is solid as a rock. He doesn’t care about the thunders at all! I used to jump right into the bed with mama and dad when the sky got angry with me, but now I have a new solution.

I convince the Dude to dig up the blanket that normally covers the Dora, and then we start wiggling our way underneath so we can be protected by its soft, blue wonderfulness. Normally we don’t really get the whole way there — our heads get under, but our butts and matching tails and little hind bunny-legs stay sticking out. Sometimes mama walks in at that point, and after she’s done laughing, she will sometimes take pity and cover us up.

And I gotta say — ever since the Dude came along, I’m not so dready about the thunders anymore!

Has anybody else tried using their brother as a thundershirt?

The mower

The other evening, the boys were outside in their natural habitat, hunting for bugs and eating the tall prairie grasses in our yard . . .

But then, just as they were getting the most satisfying of nibbles on the most succulent of prairie grasses . . .

A jarring disruption occurred . . .

It was the daddyman, celebarting Daylight Savings Time with his new reel-mower:

The newly mowed grass sure looked nice, but it made for some sad, sad Chickerdoodles!

Published! Our cover piece in the Virginia-Maryland Dog Magazine

We’re excited to share our first real publication — the cover story for the up-and-coming regional pet mag, The Virginia-Maryland Dog! The publication is in its first year, but is already distributed to thousands of dog-loving households in the greater Maryland / Virginia region, and it’s gaining momentum as it goes.

I was wicked-flattered when I was asked to write a story about dog rescue in the DC area and our own personal involvement, and got chills when I learned that the article was to be a cover piece. Holy cow!

Handsome formerly-adoptable Baxter of MCHS and Jasmine’s House got to be the cover boy, but our very own first foster — Lollie Wonderdog —  also got her moment in the sun:

Naturally I focused the piece on the stories of three fantastic pit bull type dogs, even though it was meant to be about rescue in general, not pit bull dogs in particular. What can I say — I just can’t help myself. Luckily, the magazine editors didn’t seem to mind, and our story ran.

For those who don’t live in the DC area and can’t immediately go scoop up their own print copy, here’s the intro to the piece:

When Catalina Stirling of Jasmine’s House Rescue heard about Baxter, she knew he was coming with her. Baxter had arrived at the Montgomery County Humane Society last June with a body covered in bruises and bald patches. He was emaciated, his eyes were bloodshot, his ears were swollen and red, and there were scars all over his body. He had gingivitis, irritated skin, and a serious case of Demodex mange. He was too weak and frightened to even stand up on his own. In short, he was hardly the average person’s idea of a ready-to-go adoptable pet. But that was exactly why Jasmine’s House wanted Baxter.

Every day, rescue workers across the country comb shelters for dogs like Baxter. To the trained eye, they are easy to identify. Gentle and uncertain, they are staff favorites who are often branded with the tell-tale physical and behavioral signs of a difficult life left behind. The average adopter passes by these dogs in favor of the springy, effervescent dogs in neighboring kennels, but rescue workers are in on a little secret– the dogs hiding in the shadows at the back of the kennel, too uncertain to make eye contact, can be exceptional family pets.

For the whole story, visit the Virginia-Maryland Dog magazine website and click on “digital edition” on the righthand side. We’re on page 12!

School Days: Doodlebug’s quest to be basically obedient

Last Tuesday, the Dude began his quest to become basically obedient — that is, he had the first session of his six-week basic obedience class.

Although I might have been able to teach the Dude most of the skills covered in a formal class, I knew it would be good for him to learn in a more formal environment and practice being calm around other dogs — a bit of a challenge for the Dude, who gets excited at the sight of another four-legger. Plus, taking two dogs through the basic obedience class is part of my trainer’s training requirement, so the Dude’s participation is a natural fit.

So we headed over to the Center with low expectations — the Doctor’s orders are for the Dude to refrain from participating in any exciting activities for another three weeks due to his heartworm treatment. So we were fully expecting to be parked far from the other seven dogs, in a quiet corner of the field where he would be far from all the excitement. Per our head trainer’s suggestion, we prepared him a kong stuffed with kibble, peanut butter, and cheese to keep him busy and calm during the first half of class, which would be mostly conversation and little activity.

But we shouldn’t have worried. The Dude did a little bit of quiet whimpering as we approached the broad agility field where class would be held, but quickly plopped himself down in the mulch to relax and observe the goings-on, as though he were just lounging on the bed at home. He was a perfect gentleman the rest of the evening, and we were his proud, beaming parents.

The first lesson covered some fundamentals that the Dude was better than the other dogs at had already been practicing at home, like sitting for food and sitting & relaxing for attention. The latter is especially critical, and we feel so lucky that we made it second-nature years ago with Chick — it seems to not come easily to so many families with dogs. The basic principle is this: we should be giving our dogs attention for displaying behaviors we like (sitting quietly and calmly, for example), and ignoring the behaviors we don’t like (jumping and barking, for example). It’s easy to be tempted to push a dog away when he jumps, or say “Doodlebug, NO!” or “quiet!” when he barks for attention. But in doing this, we’re actually giving the dog exactly what he wants. To a dog — especially a pushy one — attention means being looked at, talked to, or touched — doesn’t matter if it’s positive or negative in our eyes. If we are consistent, a dog can quickly learn that barking will not earn him that treat, and jumping will not get the visitor to look at him. The behavior will eventually extinguish. For dogs whose unsavory habits are long-ingrained, it can take some time. For dogs who are just learning the rules from scratch, change happens pretty quickly.

The Dude was lucky to learn this from scratch in our home. It’s our hypothesis that he had never been trained at all before living with us, so in his mind, there were no rules. Lucky us: within three days of coming into our home, Dude was consistently planting his butt firmly on the ground and looking at us with those giant doe eyes of his when he wanted a pet or a scratch, not punching us with his paws or face or barking obnoxiously.

The first week’s homework? Practicing sits and releases in progressively more challenging locations in / around the house, sitting for the food bowl, and tiedown approaches. The Dude aced ’em all.

Stay tuned next week for an update on tonight’s session two!

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