In my last blog, I asked you to think about what your dog does when you are not actively working with them. I suggested that if your dog was offering random behaviors when you were not working, or if your dog does not come back to work with enthusiasm, or if your dog doesn’t seem to know when they should be working with you or when they should be interacting with the environment, then you need to rethink your training plan – the part that focuses on the spaces in between. Many of you also suggested that you need some help! So let’s look at the question now: How does one handle the spaces in between?
The first thing I’d like to suggest is that you focus on what you want your dog to do rather than what you don’t want. Several people mentioned that their dogs do things like barking or offering behaviors. That awareness is okay, but keep in mind these are things we don’t want rather than things we do want. What do you want your dog to do? The problem with focusing on what you don’t want is that you are being reactive rather than proactive; your dog filled the space because you didn’t. The dog does a thing, and you respond to it. You might respond by giving your dog cookies, or shushing your dog, or just being annoyed, but no matter how you look at it you are being reactive.
It’s time to be proactive!
What do you want? Here are my preferred options, in order from least training and sophistication required to the most:
Place your dog in a covered crate or closed car. If your dog is too young or inexperienced to manage themselves between exercises then the solution is simple…off to the crate for you! Dogs who are just starting training should not be working for more than a few minutes at a time anyway, so after a five or ten minute session, at the most!, it’s time to go to the crate if training will continue into another round. This is when you can think about what you want to do next, reset equipment, etc. And I’m going to repeat this one more time…if you’re talking about a young puppy or new learner, the total amount of time within a training session, and the total number of sessions within a working period, should be reasonably short and few. Don’t bore or flood your young learners! A short and targeted series of sessions is going to be much more productive than a long drawn out day at the club or training with friends. Think: Five minutes of training – twenty minutes in the crate – five minutes of training, etc.
This solves the issue of the spaces in between and just as important, it is the start of a training structure for your dog. When we’re not working, we’re in our crate on our own time. This assumes that the dog has been adequately acclimated and exposed to the working space before you even began, but that’s a different conversation and will not be addressed here. (You can search this blog for acclimation if needed)
A leash holder! If you have a friend nearby who can help you out, you can hand your leash to that person and let them entertain your dog while you do other stuff. Dogs absolutely recognize who is holding the leash and learn quickly to attend to that individual. This teaches your dog that when you hand the leash over to another person, then the other person will now play with the dog, entertain them, whatever, and It frees you up to listen to your instructor or otherwise spend your time preparing to train again before you take your puppy back.
Quiet personal interaction. This is probably the one I do most often when my dog is next to me and I am trying to talk to another person or talk to a video camera. In this example, my attention is actually split, but I’m so comfortable kneeling and playing with my dogs that I can manage low-key petting interaction without looking at them, and in this way I can listen to another person or explain something before going back to work. This is the one I do when the pauses are going to be very short and I won’t really have to concentrate on whatever I am doing. When I do this I have my hands on my dogs continuously – talking to another person – and when I’m ready to go back to work I stop talking/petting, stand up, and go still until my dog looks up and understands we’re going back to work – it is usually instantaneous.
Squishing between my legs. If you search this blog for the word squishing you will find examples, video, and verbal explanation of how to do this. In short, the dog learns that when they are being held against my body or between my legs that something is going to happen soon, but not at that moment, so they are welcome to relax and look around. With a small dog, you can pick the dog up. This is a trained behavior, so slightly more complicated than quiet personal interaction.
Station training. This is another favorite. In this example, the dog is sent to a place; maybe the back of an open car or a mat nearby or even a towel on the ground. You teach the dog to stay on that place. It is relatively unstructured, because in general we allow the dog to sit, down, stand…whatever they want. But they have to stay there; that is the job.
You can also attach the leash to a wall to start station training – same idea but no training required.
A down stay is the same as a station, except it is more formal and can be done anywhere and without a “thing” to station the dog. In general I prefer a station to a down stay but if my dog has to learn a long stay in a specific position, for example for obedience competition, I would probably use a down-stay simply to kill two birds with one stone.
Can you see how in all of these examples the dog is told what to do rather than what not to do? And because once I train the “in between” behavior I rarely reinforce them nor do I even look at the dog, the dog also looks forward to getting back to work so they can earn their cookies or toys or simply enjoy the time with me!
But if I don’t reinforce these behaviors after they are trained, what do I do if the dog disregards me? What do I do if the dog gets up and leaves?!
The first time I return them to the spot. For example, if I tell my dog to go in the back of the car and they hop out without being cued, then I simply put them back. Immediately.
What if they hop out again? Then I shut the hatch of the car. The dog learns that if they want the freedom to look around at the world with the hatch open, then they need to stay put. Since most dogs prefer looking around to being locked in the closed car, this works fine.
What happens if the dog is sent to the station and doesn’t say there after being returned one time? Then I put them in their crate. The dog is welcome to be on a station, but if they cannot manage that amount of freedom then they go into their crate.
What happens if they bark in their crate? Then I cover the crate.
What happens if I cover the crate and they continue to bark? Then I put them in the car.
Do you get the idea? The spaces in between are trained. They are not incidental! First you need to spend some time teaching the expectation, then dramatically reducing the rate of reinforcement so the dog understands that it is a waiting period until something more interesting happens, and then you must be consistent! From the time my dogs are very young, they learn that they’re going to spend time in the car, and the going to spend time in crates in different places, so none of this is new nor upsetting to them. It’s just part of the expectation of being a dog being prepared for competition.
Remember, the dog is actually performing a behavior, bu one that requires little or no effort from the dog. You’re the one on a break, but the dog? They are either working, waiting as a trained event, or they are contained in a crate or a car so that they don’t have to make any choices if they are not ready to do so.
I hope that helps!
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I’ve been reading your blog for more than five years and I’m still learning. Thank you, Denise.