Management is the poor cousin of training and behaviour modification. It’s only when it is missing that the spotlight starts to turn on this critical element. From the earliest stages in training, helping pups to learn in class, good trainers know to create a calm atmosphere. An environment full of noise and movement is not conducive to enjoyable, or effective, learning. At the most advanced stages of learning, providing the dog with the opportunity to perform the skills she’s been practising despite the presence of extreme distraction is another choice that smart trainers make – when the time is right. Management isn’t about making things easy, it’s about supporting success from a practical perspective.
For example, when I first started training with my green detector dog, we worked in quiet buildings with nothing else to pull the dog’s attention from his task. Searching for the target scent was a big enough ask without piling on needless pressure. And that is the effect of the wrong environment. Pressure to perform. Often leading to failure and, sometimes to anxiety. But after many hours of training, I took that same dog into his first ship’s engine room. The heat. The strong smell of oil. The fact that he couldn’t hear me over the noise of the engines. The instant vibration on the metal floor beneath his paws. None of it mattered. He knew his task, he had the skill and the confidence to work in this most unpleasant of areas. No stress, no failure.
And as it turned out, engine rooms became this dog’s favourite environment to work in. And so started years of me sweating in my boiler-suit while my dog joyfully searched his way up and down open metal stairs exploring every corner of these hellish workplaces.
My point is that you have to manage the environment as part of the learning process. It’s not an optional add-on. If you don’t believe me, try teaching a dog to recall to you in the middle of a busy park on a summer’s afternoon. Children playing football, families picnicking, dogs running around after frisbees, ducks swimming on the pond. Are you really expecting your dog to ignore all of those to come back to you? It’s unreasonable. Yes, once you’ve built a strong reward history and have a pretty reliable recall, go to the park. But do it mindfully. With planning and forethought.
Proofing behaviours by gradually building competition for your dog’s attention or adding more layers to solid training foundations is essential. If you want to help your dog respond positively and reliably to your cues no matter where she is or what is happening, proofing is mandatory. But increase the challenge too fast and you will quickly see all your hard work crumbling before your eyes.
The same principal applies when working to change behaviour. This can range from the very simple to the downright impossible. I recall an in-home consultation where the client wanted me to help her stop her terrier from barking at people who passed by her living room window. During the history taking part of the consultation I observed the dog as I chatted with her people. She greeted me when I arrived, but since then she had happily snoozed in her bed by the sofa.
“Is it this window that she’s barking from?” I asked, pointing to the long narrow window in front of us.
“Yes! She watches out there all afternoon, barking her head off!” came the reply.
Had I not conducted this visit in the client’s home I would likely have missed the crucial element of this picture. The window was about 3 foot off the ground. And the terrier stood barely a foot high.
“And how does she see out of the window?”
At which point the client got up, retrieved a dining room chair from the next room and placed it in front of the window. Seeing this, the dog immediately ran out of bed, hopped up onto the chair and started barking as she looked out the window.
Management to the rescue.
I’ve advised clients to close their bedroom door to stop their muddy dog jumping onto the duvet. I’ve recommended changing doorbells to help dogs learn new behaviours around parcels being delivered. And I’ve suggested placing a blanket over a travel cage to help with motion sickness. All sound modifications based on management more than training. Of course, in most situations training and more subtle behavioural interventions are used alongside management. But sometimes, it really is as simple as closing a door. Or moving a chair.
Management is not the sexy side of behaviour modification. But without it, everyone is disadvantaged. Looking at what practical solutions can be brought to the table is an integral part of the process alongside counter-conditioning, coping strategies and pharmaceutical interventions. A very simple example, and one that I use on myself, is to put high calorie treats in the cupboard. If I leave the crisps, chocolate or cake out on the counter I am much more likely to to eat them than if they are out of sight. Larger, more fundamental strategies can be used to treat more serious issues. I understand that part of successfully treating some addictions is to change the environment, the neighbourhood, the circle of friends. That is management. Management is what supports learning and change. Without it, the struggle is so much harder.
Over the past few weeks, Ettie has started to chase the cat. When Pan jumps onto the fence into the garden, Ettie rushes out to pounce on him. Understandably, Pan does not appreciate this. While I spent a considerable amount of time and effort when she was little to teach her how to behave around and with the cat, I’d grown complacent. This new, more intense behaviour could quickly get out of hand. I’d noticed that some of the other dogs were starting to show an interest in what was happening and so I knew I had to act quickly.
With the help of my housemate Amie, we swiftly put in some management protocols. When we heard the cat on the fence, we immediately got control of Ettie. We did this by simply shutting the living room door so that she couldn’t run out to scare the cat. We combined this with games and training so that she was reminded that the cat was always more boring than what was happening with us. And that by coincidence, we were always more fun when the cat was around!
These measures allowed the cat to come indoors unhindered. We further encouraged him to come in by giving him smaller meals so that we could put ‘extra’ food into his bowl throughout the day. I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable or afraid in his own home. Or to pack his bags and move in with one of the neighbours. Knowing that food is the way to his heart, finding tasty treats in his bowl did the trick.
It didn’t take long for Ettie to get the idea and so we continued to play and train when the cat climbed the fence, but now we did it with the living room door open. This had the added advantage of the cat coming into the room, either for attention from us or to elicit a share of the treats. With the added help of a pre-trained ‘Leave’, Ettie’s cat obsession went as quickly as it arrived. Management was just as important a part of the successful strategy as the behavioural and training elements.
So the next time your dog moves when you’ve asked her to stay, or doesn’t retrieve the object as requested, think about what practical changes you could make to help her succeed the next time you ask. Maybe only ask her to stay when your children are watching tv rather than running around. Or maybe ask her to pick up a soft retrieve article rather than a wooden one. Manage your expectations of what she is ready for next. Be mindful. Learning and change don’t only come from within, they can be assisted from without.
And if I can fix a problem by simply putting up a baby gate instead of spending weeks teaching and proofing a behaviour, why not? In the big scheme of things, we have to prioritise what is important, and what is less important. These will be different for everybody. I can’t set your priorities any more than you can set mine. But if you ask for my expertise, management will always be part of the package.
To find out about setting your dog up for success, proofing behaviours and much, much more, sign up for my new Support Skills course now.