Doodlebug had a fun day yesterday, and came home totally pooped. After a nice long nap, though, he woke up with an idea: he wants to issue a fun work-your-dog challenge to all his internet friends! Here’s what sparked the idea:
Over the last few weeks, our dog activities beyond neighborhood walks and puzzles and games at home have dwindled to none. It’s understandable, we like to think, since we’re in the final stretch of pregnancy, and both time and energy seem scarce.
But sticking to the same routine — neighborhood walks, playtime in the yard — leave us with some restless dogs. We can go out for a 45 minute stroll and the boys are both ready for a nap, but after a short while, they’re ready to party and looking for the next thing. Simply put, the daily routine only gets us so far.
Yesterday, I went to work and brought Doodlebug. It was a warm day, and we decided to take a walk with our good friend / fellow Celebridog Olive, who also works at the Canine Center. That is — Olive is my friend. Doodlebug has been around Olive before, but not much. They have never “met” nose-to-nose or even nose-to-butt, and that’s mostly because our ‘Bug is still working on being relaxed enough in the presence of dogs to be capable of a polite greeting (the only type we allow).
For 15 minutes, we walked around the Center’s wooded trails, both dogs walking politely on loose leashes, about 5 or 6 feet apart. Don’t get me wrong — this was a challenge for the ‘Bug at first. When he comes close to another dog, his instinct is to stare, pull or lunge, and sometimes to growl. He just doesn’t know what to do with himself. But with Olive, I asked him to mind his manners and reminded him of the rules for the first minute or two of our walk, and just like that — he settled in. It was clear that he was not entirely at ease from his occasional sideways glances, subtle lip-licks, and extended, boisterous dirt-kicking session after going potty. But, he was working hard, keeping his cool, and making me proud. Just 15 minutes, and he was exhausted.
He got a nice long rest while I worked, and before we left, another short session — this time, agility! Since the beginning of his agili-dog days, Doodlebug has struggled with jumps. He was either too weak, too uncoordinated, or too distracted to get over even a very modest 10″ jump. Or, we speculated, he just wasn’t putting it together. He didn’t understand that it mattered whether he went over the jump or bowled right through it. We worked hard on this skill, and after several weeks, he was usually getting the gist. But when the bar was higher, he’d just knock it off with his back legs. Every. Single. Time.
Until today. We got out to the agility field, and I could tell that Doodlebug was ready to work. He really wanted to work. Seizing upon his motivation, I tried a few new tricks to encourage him to clear higher jumps, and just like that — it clicked. I saw the gears in his head turning, and it was like a lightbulb went off and he finally understood. We celebrated with a few rounds of jumps at 16″ and then a few at 20″. Perfect execution every time. I was a proud mom.
We only spent about 10 minutes on the field, but we made the most of our time. I gave Doodlebug precise direction on what I expected, raised the bar (both literally and figuratively) only as fast as I was certain that he would “win” the majority of his attempts, and we had a boisterous celebration every time he executed. It was beautiful teamwork, and it paid off. We got in the car to go home feeling happy, proud, and tired.
Doodlebug almost fell asleep in the car on the drive home, and took an epic nap once we arrived. All through dinner, he didn’t move an inch. He was completely sacked out — and after only about 25 minutes of active working time, separated into two short bursts!
So that got us to thinking: what is so magical about what we did today, that made Doodlebug so much more satisfyingly exhausted than our normal routine of puzzle toys, bones, and long neighborhood walks? We boil it down to a few things:
1. Changing up the environment. The ‘Bug is a seasoned veteran of the Canine Center but he hadn’t been in a few weeks, so it still made it a more exhausting training environment than our own back yard. But the environment there is comfortable enough for Doodlebug that we can sail right past the basics like loose leash walking, sit/stays, and proper meet-and-greets with people. On the other hand, if we’d gone to our local Home Depot, the running trail by the river, or one of the dog-friendly bars around town, we would’ve had a much bigger challenge. In any of those locations, our training session would have probably focused on polite walking, sits and downs, and maybe some short-distance recalls. Just because our ‘Bug can execute any of those skills perfectly at home, at our neighborhood park, or at the Center, doesn’t mean he can do them everywhere. In a new environment, we start with the basics. And they are a challenge!
2. Exposure to a challenge. For Doodlebug, walking with Olive was challenging because he has a hard time being a gentleman and keeping his cool in the close proximity of new dogs. Our walk was only 15 minutes long, but the whole walk long, ‘Bug was concentrating on doing the right thing, and not just tuning out and walking mindlessly along. There are, of course, critical success factors involved: (1) we gave him enough distance that he was still capable of making good choices (rather than reacting); (2) I reminded him of the rules ahead of time and anytime he seemed to forget; and (3) I gave him constant feedback for his good choices, like walking on a loose leash, looking away, and offering calming signals. For some dogs, an appropriate challenge might be another dog at 50 feet away. For others, it’s the mailman. For others still, it’s their own canine sibling that they love to play with.
3. Active training. On a regular basis, Doodlebug and I hit the agility field and cruise through his favorite contacts and pieces, and this exhausts him for a few minutes. But what exhausts him much, much more, is learning. So rather than assembling a quick course and letting him run it a bunch of times, we spent our ten minutes actively training one particular element that is especially challenging. By keeping the session short, the increments small, and the payoffs for success big, Doodlebug had fun and learned something new.
So here’s Doodlebug’s challenge to you: instead of heading out for your next 30 minute walk with your dog, think about how you can use the three items above. First: What new environment can you visit? It doesn’t have to be fancy, it might just be the parking lot of your local bank or grocery store — just someplace new that might serve as a challenge to your dog’s concentration. Remember, don’t try to get all fancy in your first minutes, just focus on a basic skill. This will probably be something your dog knows at home but has trouble with in public. Think: playing fetch, walking politely on a leash, sit/stay, or waiting to be released to eat a treat or bowl of food. Bring plenty of treats and make it fun! Second: What kind of challenge can you subtly expose your dog to? Be careful to limit the exposure to an intensity and distance that your dog can succeed in — if your dog has a meltdown, give more time and space! And third: don’t forget to be actively working your dog during your short session! It’s easy to hit the town and let your dog do what she wants while you text or check Facebook, but resist the urge. Instead, put all of your energy and concentration in your session with your dog. Give lots of good feedback on when she’s doing what you like, and help guide her away from doing what you don’t like. Bring treats and don’t be stingy with your emotion. If you’re fun, your dog will stay engaged and have fun, too!
After you’ve headed out into the world for 15-30 minutes, come back and tell us how it went, and whether you noticed a calmer, more satisfied dog at day’s end. In our household, these tricks are a magic combination. Are they in yours, too? We’ll be waiting!
To see a video of Doodlebug showing off his new 20″ jump, click over to our Facebook page!