We have been following your articles and would like some feedback on an all-too familiar challenge associated with the coming of the holidays; visiting family members. I have four kids of my own and my wife has three. Our kids range in ages from 2 to 18. Both sets of grandparents are also visiting. How do we juggle such a full, chaotic house and continue the hard work we’ve been doing with our dog Oscar on not jumping on guests or bolting out the front door?
It certainly sounds like you’ll have a full house this holiday season! Remember, the holidays can be a challenging time during which our dogs can seem to unlearn every good behavior we spent months painstakingly teaching, but they also present us with some great opportunities to implement real-world training techniques.
First, I would sit down with your family and discuss some safety rules for Oscar. You mentioned that you have been working on him not bolting out the front door. Perhaps put up a doggy gate in the hallway so he can’t gain unsupervised access to the entryway. I know when our arms are full of groceries and we are welcoming long-anticipated family into our home, we can become distracted and dogs can slip out into the street. So, a baby gate might be an easy safety addition.
The holidays are also a time for delicious foods that may be toxic for dogs, so discuss the importance of keeping the lids on trash cans firmly closed and cooked bones and tempting tidbits pushed far back on countertops. Lastly, make sure that Oscar’s collar is snugged up so it can’t slip off, and check that his microchip or dog tag information is up to date just in case he escapes and becomes lost.
Next, I would implement the following principles of training and maintenance. Remember, training is when my dog is set up for success and I am able to reward the behaviors I would like to encourage and correct the behaviors I would like to become extinct. Maintenance is the rest of your life with your dog.
Forms of maintenance might be using a baby gate or barrier to stop access to a threshold, popping Oscar in his crate or in a dog run or tether training. While training is usually accomplished in short, frequent bites in a highly controlled environment, maintenance is what you should implement when you cannot guarantee success and don’t want Oscar to learn undesired behaviors. As a professional dog trainer, I say that training is how you swim upstream in the river of life, and maintenance is treading water and not being washed back downstream.
Let’s use a real world example to see how you can use training and maintenance throughout your guest’s stay. The doorbell rings. Oscar’s leash is by the door with the treat bag. You hook him up to his leash, grab a handful of treats, approach the door slowly and open it. Your guests are able to stand still and not rush inside immediately as you get Oscar to sit. Looking up you smile in welcome and advise that Oscar is learning not to jump. You hand folks a treat and ask them to have him sit before saying hi. If he jumps or knocks into someone you can guide him back to you via the leash or treats. The bottom line is that if Oscar becomes too excited and exhibits an undesired behavior, you are there to help him succeed.
Now, let’s take a look at when you should use maintenance instead of training. It’s several hours later. Folks are asking questions, wanting tours of the house and drinks from the fridge and the kids are running off their sugar high. The doorbell rings. Instead of reluctantly dragging yourself to the leash and treat bag, or surrendering to the chaos and letting Oscar learn undesired behaviors, it is best to keep Oscar behind the baby gate and to have guests approach him to give him pets. In this scenario they can back away if he jumps and resume petting when he is calm. As alternative forms of maintenance you could also put Oscar in his crate with a chew toy, or put him in a room that has been cleared of expensive, shredable items. This way, as you race from refilling drinks to monitoring food to resuming conversations, you can relax knowing Oscar is safe and not learning any bad habits.
Training and maintenance together create a highly successful formula for success. Remember to implement either one or the other as best as you can throughout the holidays and Oscar shouldn’t regress in his training.
Kendall and Chandler Brown are owners of Custom K-9 Service Dogs, a dog training business serving Minden/Gardnerville, Carson and Reno. For information go to customk9servicedogs.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.