Everyone meet Twyla!
Twyla is an 8-month-old mixed breed dog who I adopted a week ago. She spent a week with me as a foster, so had a little training before our official week 1 began. Successes listed can be considered Week 1 and Week 2.
First, let me say that the house is heavily managed. There is a gate blocking off the kitchen, and doors to bedrooms and bathrooms are closed. She does not have free access to the yard while unsupervised. Most of this is due to needing time to get to know her and what kind of trouble she may get into, but it is also about setting priorities. While kitchen manners are very important, I needed to prioritize what I needed first and what time I had available to work on those priorities. What is truly important is not asking myself to do more than Twyla and I can do at any one time. Managing the environment takes all the pressure off to work on every single skill or rule from the beginning.
Part of getting to know Twyla means learning what she likes and dislikes. We tried lots of different foods this week. Boiled chicken is usually an easy starting place, but I don’t always want to carry food that needs to be refrigerated. String cheese and dried apples were a hit. Banana chips were just sort of okay. Fresh bananas were not okay, the same went for tangerine slices. For premade treats I bought at the pet store, bacon flavored won out over chicken and peanut butter flavors. Interestingly, of all the things we tried, sesame sticks were the biggest hit.
What were my goals for this week? They weren’t what we would consider “obedience” skills. Let’s look at the list.
- There are locations or spots for certain activities.
- Indoor play
- Go entertain yourself
Rest is at the top of my list because this skill is helpful for a lot of house rules and activities. Human leaving and coming back means rest. Visitors coming in and leaving means rest. Food preparation means rest. Vacuums and gardener sounds means rest. You get the idea. Resting or settling in a location when things are noisy, or perhaps a bit stressful, is the skill that gets us through those negative associations.
Skill 1: Go to your bed.
Twyla’s main resting spot is in view of the highest use doors, is outside the kitchen, and is in a spot that doesn’t impede foot traffic.
Step 1: Toss treats on the bed. Dog will go to the bed to eat.
Step 2: Toss treats on the bed any time someone goes in and out a door. Anytime someone is preparing food in the kitchen. Anytime there are loud noises (trash day is a good time to work on this one.)
Step 3. Say “go to your bed” and toss treats.
Step 4. Say “go to your bed” and pause a second to see if the dog will go on their own. If they don’t, say “go to your bed” again and toss treats. Repeat until dog is moving to the bed without following the treat toss.
Step 5. Say “go to your bed” every time someone goes in and out the door, prepares food, or loud noises happen.
I went in and out doors a lot throughout the day. Some exists were actual needs like getting the mail, doing laundry or putting the trash out. Some were just because I hadn’t done one in awhile. Each day had about 15 to 20 entrances and exits. By the end of Day 4, Twyla was going to her bed on her own when I left, remaining there while I was gone, and patiently waiting for her treat when I came back in. This is the goal: house activities alone tell the dog what is expected. I no longer had to tell her to “go to bed”, she chose to do it all on her own because we had spent a lot of time building that skill. When in doubt, go to your bed.
A few notes about this skill. I don’t actually mandate a “sit” or “down” in this location. She learned to settle on her own as I increased the time I was gone, so when I came back in, she was in a “down” and that got the food. In the beginning she popped up to a “sit”, so I put the food on the bed instead of in her mouth. She learned that she gets the food quicker if she’s “down”.
At this point, she has been doing it so consistently, and getting food each time, that I am not telling her to go to her bed if she’s not in it. If she’s in another location I don’t give her a treat when I come back in. Sometimes she’s confused and will go to her bed on her own, which then gets a treat. Sometimes she’s too comfy where she is (she’s taken over my spot on the sofa,) that no further reinforcement is necessary. She was relaxed while I was gone, is still relaxed, and is making the choice to relax versus getting a treat.
Skill 2: Go Potty
For ease of clean up I like dogs to relieve themselves in one area of the yard. When I guessed she might have to potty (an hour after eating, half hour after drinking, half hour mark of running around,) I took her to the corner I wanted her to go. No toys were available since they could be distraction. I stood still, let her sniff around, and when she relieved herself and was done (don’t interrupt the stream!) she got a “good girl!” and toys appeared. By Day 3 I sort of understood how long it took her to sniff so I could predict when she would squat. It’s an easy body change to spot: head is down and sniffing, then it comes straight up so they can squat. When her head came up I said, “go potty”, waited for her to be empty, then toys appeared as before. This is where we are at the end of Week 1. It is harder to keep the yard free of toy distractions because she’s been scattering them everywhere, so when I go out I do pick them up before saying, “go potty”.
I do have potty bells hanging on the door. She has accidentally hit them when she was moving the curtains aside. Every time she hits them, I go open the door. I haven’t really worked on the bell ringing because I’m taking her out and reinforcing her for going potty in the right place. The bells are not a priority this week, but they are available for her to learn about them a bit.
House Rule 1: Play happens in the pen area.
Because Twyla is still a puppy and likes to chew and shred things, I leave her in a pen when I actually leave the house for a long period of time. This area is where all the toys and chews are kept and is where enrichment food toys are given. I did this for a number of reasons. First, since that’s the area I’m leaving her in, I wanted really good positive associations with that space. Second, I put down some mud rugs in that area, so it’s all really easy to clean. I can vacuum up shreds, pick up larger pieces by hand, and wipe or hose down any spills or food remnants. This solves the problem of needing to clean puppy crumbs from the entire house. If she moves toys out of this area, I simply moved them back in and said “good girl”, as she engaged with them. This area also helps explain that the rest of the items in the house are off limits. If it’s in the play area it’s hers, if it’s in the rest of the house, it’s mine.
House Rule 2: Meals happen in the crate.
I could have actually used the pen area for meals as well, but it’s actually sort of in the way. Since I didn’t know if Twyla would have food guarding issues, I decided to go for safety first and give her a place to eat that is out of the way and she won’t be bothered while she eats. Plus, living in a high wildfire area where evacuations happen, crate training is mandatory. Right now I’m just building a drive to go in the crate and doing that twice a day with her meals. “Go to your crate”, means go to your crate and get your meal. For the first 4 days I tossed treats in the crate ahead of her, then after she’d eaten them and turned around, the food bowl was in the doorway and I put the bowl down, keeping her in. When she’s done with her meal, she’s free to leave. Long term crating (as opposed to a larger pen,) won’t be the goal for awhile, but I can build some positive associations for it now
House Rule 3: Drinking happens in the pen area.
It seems like a weird thing to encourage, but I do not allow dogs to drink from toilets. While all of the house doors are shut for the moment, the goal should be the dog knows the rules and how the house operates so management isn’t entirely necessary. Acknowledging drinking from the right location gets praise, “Good girl!” By the time the rooms open up, this should be such a habit that toilets aren’t of any interest.
Skill 3: “All done” or “Go lay down”.
These are the phrases for “training or play is over, go entertain yourself,” and “I’m busy, go entertain yourself.” Being able to get a dog to disengage should never be a harsh experience. They’ve sought out their human, or have been working with their human, and they want that connection and bonding. Twyla is very cuddly, so this week has been about discovering what is the minimum amount of cuddling, petting, affection, etc., that she will accept and be able to move off on her own. If I’m working and she approaches for attention, I try to 15 seconds of petting, then “all done”, withdraw my hands, and turn back to the computer. I give her another 10 seconds to disengage and move off. If she doesn’t, she gets another 15 seconds of petting, then “all done”, and I remove my attention. For the most part, a single 15 seconds works, but occasionally she wants more. It’s important that she have access to toys and activities she can entertain herself with, so if she needs help with that, I take her to the pen area and pick one of the toys and hand it to her. She’d pretty good and doing this on her own now that she knows that’s where all the toys are.
One of the other skills I needed was to teach her to “up”. She’s a heavy girl, and lifting her into the car isn’t going to be possible much longer. We’ve worked on “up” on furniture, platforms, and the car. She’s doing better.
Step 1: Dog touches their nose to your hand.
Step 2: Dog touches their nose to your hand in a bunch of different locations.
Step 3: Dog touches their nose to your hand when they have to get up on something.
Step 4: Increase the height they have to get up to reach the hand.
Nose touches are a foundational skill that’s useful for a ton of other skills. Getting the dog to move from Point A to Point B, “Up” and “Off”, “Come”, “move away”, etc. I use this skill a lot for little kids. They can put their hands out away from their body and say “touch” and the dog will move away from the child’s face and body.
Twyla came with a little bit of a whistle recall, so I’ve built on that. My whistling or a dog whistle means really good food is available. Right now whistling is within sight of her and is always rewarded with very good food like chicken or meatballs. “Come on” means “follow me”. Dogs follow humans naturally, (especially if there is the possibility of food,) so I’ve just added these words when we’re going in or out of the house. I have not used them when she’s otherwise occupied yet.
A dog’s name is a way to get their attention and look at your face. Capturing eye contact or saying the name and when they look at your face giving them a treat is a pretty fast process. Because we had rain this week, and I was bored, we did play hide and seek in the house, with “Twyla” meaning “come and find me and get good food.” I put some dry dog food or cheerios on the floor to keep her in a location long enough for me to sneak away. I hid behind doors or curtains or in alcoves and called her name. Sometimes it was hard to find me, which is okay since we want some persistence in this task. I simply called her name again so she could find me.
Although these skills are great, the overall focus was to help her reduce stress from her spay surgery and a month or more of life changes. She spent a month in a pubic shelter, had come in with her sister who was adopted before her, and had a few foster homes before me. We did a lot of massages, fed lots of good wholesome food, made sure she had resting places, toys, and fresh water, and just let her interact with the environment to let her discover how everything worked. Working on house rules and skills was fun, short, and not a huge time consumption during the day.