Kathy Santo, author of Dog Sense, has trained dogs for both home and competition. She sees more than 100 dogs each week at her obedience school.
Reprinted with permission from AKC Family Dog, November/December, 2007.
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Your puppy (or dog) has gotten hold of something you want-no, need-right now. Sometimes it's something innocuous but important, such as the potholder required to get dinner out of the oven before it burns. In some cases, it's an emergency, as with the dog who's managed to get hold of a bottle of prescription medication. And sometimes it's a matter of decorum, because your dog is running around the house during a party-with your underwear hanging from his teeth.
After a long chase, you finally manage to corner the thief, but he refuses to return the item as you command him. Or worse, your request makes him a bit testy. What do you do now?
If its truly an emergency, I would immediately offer the dog a "trade" for any safe thing he'd consider better than what he's holding in his mouth. In the case of a food-driven dog, I would offer some chicken or roast beef . If food won't work, then try the old "Who wants to go for a walk?" fake-out, and race to the door with his leash in hand. Once you attach the leash, take him outside. Usually a dog will become interested in exploring and sniffing, and will drop the object in question. That's when you put your foot on it, distract him with something else (e.g. drop a treat as far away from the item as possible), and reach down to pick up the object. When a dog sees your hand coming to, crel something he's recently coveted, he may react by quickly picking up the item again-or by snapping at your hand and then picking it up. But when your foot covers it and you distract him, your chances of a clean pick-up are exponentially increased and the crisis is averted until next time.
WHAT NOT TO DO
- Don't corner your dog. I know you want your property back, but cornering your dog is likely to intimidate him and trigger his primal "fight or flight" reaction. This won't help you, and is likely to upset your dog. He'll perceive you as the bad guy, which will damage your relationship.
- Don't get angry. See Don't corner your dog, above.
- Don't chase your dog. Either it'll become a great game for him, or you'll need to reread Don't corner your dog.
- Don't punish your dog. Whether he brings the object back on his own or because you called him, resist the temptation to punish him. He'll never answer your real question: "What were you thinking?" And if you punish a dog when he comes to you, guess what command you're ruining? (Hint: the come command.)
- Don't corner your dog. I'm just making sure you got that.
Why doesn't your dog listen when you tell him to drop it? Well, exactly how did you teach him that command? What? You never taught him what drop it means? Then how do you expect him to understand it? Maybe you said it once and he cringed and dropped the item, so you thought he understood? Wrong. What you witnessed was a dog who was responding to your angry tone of voice with many simultaneous behaviors: He became fearful, probably cowered, put his ears back, tucked his tail, looked away, and dropped the item. You thought he understood, but he had no clue. For your dog to understand what you're saying, you must teach him patiently and consistently. Here's how to teach a reliable drop command.
THE TRAINING PROCESS
First, if you've been using any command, such as Give, change it immediately. It's easier to teach a dog the meaning of a new command than it is to teach a new meaning for an old command. Next, choose a time when your dog hungry, lonely, and bored, and set aside 10-15 minutes in a quiet, distraction-free area. Get an object for your dog to hold-such as a field-style retrieving bumper, wooden dowel, or obedience-type retrieving dumbbell-that is the correct size for him. Leash your dog, and get a really great treat (food or a toy) for the reward.
- Give your dog a small hit of treat or a short play session with the toy. Now he knows what the payoff is!
- Place the bumper or other object in his mouth. You may have to gently hold his mouth closed around it. Tell him to hold.
- After a few seconds, simultaneously release his month and say Drop it (or whatever new command you're using). He'll spit out the object immediately (trust me on this). Instantly pop his reward into his mouth and praise him profusely.
- Repeat the process nine more times. Over the next week, do two more sets of 10 hold-and-releases. Vary your training locations, as long as they're quiet and distraction-free.
- After your dog gets the basic idea, change the object you ask him to hold to something he finds more desirable: a kitchen towel, a sock, a shoe. (The underwear? That's your call.) The point is that he learns to drop something that he really wants and gets rewarded for doing so.
- Finally, switch to a variablereward schedule. That's a fancy way of saying don't give him a food or toy reward every time he obeys the drop it command, although you must always give praise and pats when he complies.
ONE MORE QUESTION...
How long will it take for your dog to learn this? [...] The answer is, "As long as it takes!" But in general, for the average dog whose owner follows this program to the letter and doesn't encounter any problems along the way, there should be significant progress after a week or two. As with all training, the owner's consistency, patience, and execution of all the steps is 95 percent of the process. But if your dog responds to any part of the training with fear, confusion, or aggression, you must seek professional guidance immediately. Your veterinarian or local training club will be able to give you referrals to trainers and behaviorists in your area.
The fun and excitement of this time of year can lead to occasional lapses in supervision of your four-legged friend. With the drop it command, you'll be able to recover "borrowed" items without any unnecessary drama.