Overthinking is a common human trait and also a common experience in the world of dog training. Whilst the tricks and routines performed at events such as Crufts take hours and hours of effort and concentration from both the owner and dog, basic household behaviour is surprisingly simple to teach, and yet something we often overthink.
Dogs look at us for boundaries in every aspect of their lives. They are opportunists, and until they understand what they can and can’t do, where they can and can’t go, they will seek to find this, which we often misinterpret as bad behaviour. Children are very similar and during their early years will also push the boundaries until understanding what their parents and society do and don’t permit. Boundaries are involved in every aspect of life even though we don’t always realise it. Having a routine is also a form of boundary as it creates a path the dog looks to follow throughout the day. For example, if your dog is walked before work every day, they will expect that walk. Break the routine and you may find your dog acts up. I’ve seen many forms of acting up from being a bit loopy, sitting by the front door looking forlorn or even as bad as toileting in the house or destroying your favourite cushion. It’s not because they are being naughty but because the boundary, their routine, has been broken and they are confused. Every dog is unique and will react differently but every dog wants a clear set of boundaries and a clear routine.
Another form of boundary is where they sleep, where they settle and where they are and aren’t allowed. Consistency is required with these behaviours. Dogs are context-oriented beings and they are able to cope with person A allowing them on the sofa or bed and person B not allowing it - but the person themselves should be consistent. If you never let them on the sofa, don’t give in to that on a random day and then expect the dog to realise that was a one-off. The dog won’t understand it was a one-off - they will know that the boundary has been broken and it now may be permissible for them to be on the sofa. So, guess what, they’ll try it on. You’ll see them on the sofa and tell them off, thinking “I treat you once and now you think you can be on there all the time!”.
Another example is scrounging. Personally, I don’t like scrounging. I like to give our dogs treats, I’ll even offer them my leftovers (not that I leave leftovers very often!), but I will not feed from my plate or from the worktop in the kitchen. I want to be left alone while I eat or cook. So, I consistently do not give any of our dogs food from my plate or whilst I’m cooking. They know that any scrounging will not lead to reward and therefore do not scrounge from me. However, I will happily give them treats separately to me eating. If you dislike scrounging, never ever give in, no matter how soft their eyes become and how cute they make themselves look. Of course, if you don’t mind, go for it!
Consistency and routines
Ultimately, if you can be consistent in your routine, your dog will pick up on this and will follow that routine, allowing you to live in peaceful harmony and for your dog to truly become a member of your family. Have a hectic routine that is all over the place, and you’ll find you have a bonkers dog who “plays up”. Another thing to note is what triggers a routine. It’s another aspect often overlooked as we don’t always notice the triggers which signal our own routines. If your alarm goes off and the first thing you do is walk the dog, that alarm will signal to your dog they’re about to be walked. When the alarm doesn’t go off at the weekends, your dog knows they are in a different routine. Once, I had a routine so ridiculous it sounds made up but I promise you it was true. My alarm did not signal going for a walk and I could get up quite peacefully, but I would wear my lounge-wear until I walked the dogs, somewhere around mid-morning to lunchtime. However, as soon as I started to get dressed, they knew what was about to happen. Me putting my socks on was the trigger! The moment I touched my sock drawer, the dogs would leap up and run around shouting “he’s putting his socks on, he’s putting his socks on!”.
That brings me on to breaking routines. If something in your life changes and you want to break a routine, or you just want to change something you’ve accidentally fallen into, be strong. Your dog will want you to carry that routine on for at least the first few days because they will naturally be confused, but the more consistent you are, the faster the routine will break. According to research by Phillippa Lally and her team, it can take up to 66 days for us to form a routine we can stick to. A lot of the time we do this naturally without thinking about it. You’ll do the same things when getting up, have dinner at roughly the same time, go to bed in the same order, etc. You’ll also have set seats at the dinner table and in the living room. It usually takes a life change such as a new job or moving house or having a baby for our routine to drastically change.
When it comes to dogs, we have a rule in our house that it typically takes up to 6 weeks for a dog to settle into a new home, and anywhere from a week to two weeks for a new routine to be accepted y a dog, depending of course on the dog’s sensitivity, the scope of the change and of course, your determination to be consistent!
There is a phenomenon in the dog behaviour world known as extinction bursts. In short, if you give in to your dog’s demands, they will demand it more next time. For example, if your dog barks at you to give them a treat, but you think “nope, I’m going to ignore you”, and then after 10 barks, you give in, next time, your dog will bark 20 times before giving in. If you give in after 20 barks, they’ll bark for 40 times, and so on. The more you give in, the more persistent the dog is, and the longer it takes for them to change routine.
So, to have that perfect pet who blends seamlessly into your family’s lifestyle follow the three rules of being consistent, having a routine and being repetitive with that routine. Ensure every member of the household understands what the boundaries are and sticks to them!
Author: Michael Knott - Senior software consultant, dog trainer & sanctuary co-owner.