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Stop Feeding Your Dog to Help Them Settle!

I want to talk to you about settling behaviors today. I've had a few discussions recently with folks struggling to help their dogs chill out when not actively working.

Maybe you too have a dog who barks at you with any break in the action? Or perhaps the more subtle behaviors of huffing, tap dancing, or poking the treat pouch?

There are 2 common responses I see in handling these behaviors and I want you to stop doing both of them

  1. Ignoring it

  2. Feeding them, when they finally shut up

(Disclaimer: This blog focuses on settling cues when you have the dog out to "work", not settling around the house in general. Although many of the concepts will still apply!)

No More Cookies!?

Let's start with the 2nd recommended strategy first.  I want you to stop feeding your dog when you're not doing anything.

I know! That sounds blasphemous! Don't we want to reinforce what we like?!

After training hundreds of service dogs to settle out in public, the emotion I'm really going for is boredom. That big sigh as they plop down on their side to settle in and think "this is going to be a while..."

I don't want that dog who stares up at me the entire time I'm at church, or sitting down at a restaurant, or even just hanging out ringside.

And that intense staring, add in a bit of drool for the labradors, is what you will get if the dog is wondering when that next piece of food is going to come. I'm pretty impressed with just how long we can teach our dogs to stare at us when we get in that habit of mindlessly feeding our dogs for doing nothing!

So your goal is to stop feeding. Of course, this assumes that your dog does have an understanding of the release cue, and has some duration built up. You've likely been training that for years by now!

We're instead going to focus on teaching our dog very clear cues for WHEN reinforcement/work/play is available, and when it's simply not.

This includes a ready-to-work sequence you will implement in your training sessions so your dog knows what you look like when you do want to train them.

And, even more important, what are the signs that you are NOT available to work.

For my dogs, I have a verbal "take a break" cue, but I also don't give my dog the same intense focus. I'll look and smile at them, I'll pet them, but I break off and look around too. That, plus the lack of my ready-to-work routine, means sorry, nothing fun is going to happen right now.

For many dogs, we need to start with even clearer cues to them.

Cots and other raised platforms are great because they can help structure the dog during those breaks as the clear boundary helps to keep them out of trouble!

Stepping on the leash is a huge context cue to my dogs that nothing is happening. Depending on where we are, they have just enough leash to lie down or stand up in that one place. But can't really go anywhere!

And that's about it. Structure them as needed, take away the treats so they aren't staring at you and getting hyped up thinking about the next cookie, and make sure you have clear signals to the dog on the difference between work and no work!

Give them Attention

And now you may be mad at me for thinking it's that easy. Your dog is not going to settle easily and give up the snack thoughts. Or maybe they don't even want the cookie but just want to get up and start moving!

You need a plan for how to handle their frustration behaviors now that the rules are changing.

My answer is to give them attention. Especially if you have a dog who is a barker or gets wound up.

I always hated the advice to ignore behaviors as not only is that hard for us to actually do (and not accidentally teach the dog to bark even LONGER before we give in), but extinction is also quite upsetting for the learner too!

My ideal goal is to respond. In a perfect world, my response is enough to let them know I hear them (validate those feelings!), but isn't giving them THE reinforcer that is actually maintaining the behaviors.

That could look like reaching down to pet the dog when they vocalize. Give them that reassurance that you know how hard it is!

In the imperfect world, it might be feeding them a treat. Before they get too over the top and you're forced to decide whether you can actually do an extinction trial.

And then look at if there is a way to manage the situation until you can find a way to control the environment easier.

Management could look like giving them a bone to chew on, a lickety mat, putting them in your car to crate between your turns, or throwing a blanket over their crate.

Setting Up Training

You have a plan now of what you want the end goal to look like, and now you need to look at ways you can work on this training away from the triggers that start the whole thing in motion.

For most of us, those antecedents to the barking and pushy behaviors are being on leash, having food in our pockets, and being at class. You may have other triggers too!

Try to isolate just one of those cues.

That could look like having treats in your pocket at home but ignoring the dog and going about your day!

Or it could look like having the dog on leash and practicing the skill of "doing nothing" while you watch Netflix together on the couch. Then progress to the dog on leash while you sit in a chair and catch up on editing your training videos.

Can you then add the treats in your pocket to that do-nothing practice? Can you switch to standing and folding the laundry?

What about going outside and sitting in a chair?

Gradually add more layers to those previous triggers until you can go from nothing -training - and back to nothing again.

And finally, start to bring it into more exciting environments like in a dog-friendly store, outside a playground, and then class!

This will take time to train, especially if your dog has a history of getting worked up when nothing is going on!

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