Sunday, November 24, 2013

I have your sock! Chase me!

I think I may have posted this photo of Katie before.  It's one of my favorites.  In her younger days, Katie loved to take things and have us chase her.  In this photo, she stole a sock from the laundry basket.  Either I hadn't noticed, or I was trying to ignore her.  I can't remember.  But she was showing me she did, indeed, have my sock and would I please chase her?

Katie taught us this game a long time ago when she was a puppy, and the rules have evolved over time.  At first, the game was that she'd steal something and we'd make a huge fuss trying to get it back.  Like most dogs, she discovered that was a really fun game, and so she played as often as she could.  Eventually A. and I got a clue, and instead of chasing her, introduced some new rules.  First--we needed to teach her a drop-it cue.  NP there.  Katie was a quick learner.  I can't remember exactly what I did--it was a long time ago--but if I were doing it now, I'd use this wonderful approach by Chirag Patel.  In fact, when we adopted Arlo, I used this method and he now responds better than Katie ("better" = he'll drop cat poop, Katie won't drop cat poop for anything).

The second thing we did was to ignore her if she stole something we didn't care about (e.g., a paper towel, a cardboard box).  When we did that, pretty soon, she'd start following us around with the stolen goods--like she's doing in this photo--to let us know that she had something.  Lightbulb!  Katie's love of stealing things was mainly a request for attention and engagement.  And we had been positively reinforcing her request by chasing her around.  Additional plus, by ignoring her, we weren't at risk of ruining our cue.  (Before the cue was solid, we did have to keep things she couldn't have out of her reach.  All part of us getting a clue.)

Finally, because stealing things and being chased was one of Katie's most favorite games (again, because we'd inadvertantly reinforced it so early on), we purposely played it more often but using things she could have, like her toys.  One thing Katie taught me is that if sometimes drop-it means she gets the toy back, then she's more likely to respond to the cue in other situations.  (If "drop-it" always means the fun stops, then where's the fun in that?  It took me awhile to get this, but Katie is a patient teacher.)  Katie is 11 now, and she still loves for us to chase her.  She doesn't move as fast, but the game still gives her so much pleasure.

Here's another idea, from a trainer friend, for outwitting a thieving dog.  My friend's dog loved to steal towels (Katie used to love that as well).  So, rather than get into a game of chase, she put away the nice towels, and hung up old ones she didn't care about.  After a few days, when the dog realized no one cared if he stole a towel, he lost interest in the game.  I love this approach, because it's so simple.   Let the dog figure things out for himself.   Sure you can take towels, but no one cares.  What do you think of that?

If you have a dog who steals and then shreds stuff, this approach might not work.  Or it might--if what the dog has is something you really don't care about, then let him shred away (so long as he's not ingesting anything).  He might figure out that shredding is less fun when no one is chasing or shouting at him.  Or he'll have some fun shredding stuff.  I regularly let my dogs shred stuff.  And sometimes I play with them.  Arlo LOVES playing tug-of-war with an old box and turning it into tiny pieces that can be scattered all over the house.  (Yes, it's a mess to clean up.  But, hey, if you have dogs, when is there not some mess you're cleaning up?)

Bottom line:  I don't think there's any substitute for teaching your dog to give stuff up on cue--because eventually you are going to need to take something from him.  And while your dog is learning (and teething), you want to manage the environment--i.e., don't leave stuff around that you don't want him to have.  But you'll probably get a more reliable response when you ask your dog to drop something if most of the time the cue results in fun and games rather than always indicating loss of a prize.

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