We get a LOT of questions sent in every day and we can’t answer them all, so we have decided to ignore all questions from “random strangers” (unless they’re really useful to our readers) – but we do always try to answer questions from blog friends or from genuine blog followers who comment from time to time!
Here is a question from Anne, a new follower of our blog, in Aug:
I just got a girl like you who is trained to help me stay balanced when I walk. She is 6. As you guys tend to do, she wants to nuzzle me and push my hands to pat her whenever I sit down. My hands are arthritic and when she demands attention with her nose while I am, say, reading or writing, I do not have the strength to push her away. If I remove her a few feet, she comes back as soon as I sit down. She does this to company too. It is her only bad habit. I have started clicker training from your videos (her owner/trainer passed away and she has not been worked as a service dog for a year so is very rusty). I’m just not sure how to (or if to) use a clicker to help with this. I end up yelling at her before she goes away with hurt feelings, and I don’t want to have to do that.
Once again, I hope some of our more experienced blog friends can offer their thoughts in the comments below. I know a few of them are actual service dog trainers so their knowledge would probably be the most useful!
Honey sometimes does this too when she wants attention/pats (more when she was younger) – she’ll come up to me when I’m at my desk and nose/nuzzle me or rest her chin on my arm or just put her face up very close to mine – to ask for attention. What I usually do is ignore her completely – no eye contact, nothing – and this will usually make her go away. Ultimately, what they want is attention so if they don’t get it, they will give up using this method.
If she is really persistent, I will even turn slightly away from her (literally, the “cold shoulder”) – you don’t have to get up to move away or even necessarily turn completely 180° away but just shift and turn away (the way you would if you were turning to talk to somebody on your other side) – so your face is turned away and shoulder is towards her and put your hands in your lap, so she can’t access them. If she goes around to your other side, repeat in reverse.
So if you can manage it, I think that ignoring your girl completely when she does this (and tell all guests to do the same) will teach her that she can’t get attention this way. Turning and looking away is actually a very powerful signal to a dog – they use it with each other when communicating through body language.
Of course, I don’t know how easy it is for you to do this, given your physical condition but if you can manage it, then I personally think ignoring her completely and turning away like this is the best method. I wouldn’t personally use clicker training in this situation – although I’m sure you can in some ways. For example, you could use clicker training to increase the duration of her remaining on her bed/mat – so that she doesn’t keep coming back to you – but as I said below, you might not want to have to confine her to a mat all the time when you’re working. The tricky thing with clicker is that it is used to mark a specific action – so in this case, you could use it to mark her when she finally turns away and leaves you alone – but then as soon as you click, she’ll be back at your side for the reward and she’s “right” to do that – because that is part of the deal with clicker training. So in this situation, I don’t feel that clicker training is as useful – but perhaps, I am simply not experienced enough to think of a way to use it – so maybe one of our blog friends will have a good suggestion using clicker training.
Driving them to extinction
You have to brace yourself to stick with ‘Ignoring’ for a while because when you first start doing it, she may actually get MORE persistent. This is called an “extinction burst” – which is when dogs have been successful doing something in the past and when it suddemly doesn’t work anymore, they’ll get frustrated and try harder for a while – before finally giving up. It’s a bit like if you always got a chocolate every time you pushed a button on a vending machine – then one day, nothing came out. You wouldn’t just shrug and walk away, you would? You would immediately start pushing the button again – maybe harder, maybe several times, maybe even kicking the machine…and if something did pop out, you would think “Aha! The trick is to push harder or kick it!” – whereas if nothing came out, you would eventually give up and probably wouldn’t try again.
This is the reason that many pet owners often “fail” in their training – it isn’t that their methods are wrong but that they don’t resist or persist long enough. I call it “out-stubborning the dog”. They are not consistent in their reactions. They give in when the dog pesters harder – and that just makes the situation worse, because all it’s taught the dog is that they have to hassle you harder to get what they want. Most people are not prepared for this “extinction burst” but if you can ride it out, then you will usually get a dog that gives up and respects the new rule in the future.
I wouldn’t try to push your girl away – even if you could manage it without your arthritis – because that is still a form of attention and so you would still be rewarding her. Similarly, putting her on her bed is a good idea – but it only works if she will stay in it reliably and in any case, you don’t want to confine her to her bed all the time when you’re at home working – it’s nicer if she’s free to move around but just not hassle you. She could also still see the action of you putting her on her bed as a form of “attention” – and so she breaks from the bed to come back to you again and get more of it. Admittedly, it’s not the kind of attention she wants (ie. patting) but when dogs get an attention-seeking habit like this, any kind will do.
In addition, if you can, try to only give attention on your terms from now on, even in other situations (eg, living room when watching TV) – always be the one deciding when you’re going to give attention, always be the one calling her to you when you want to give her pats & attention. Ignore her when she demands it – wait until she goes away and has given up – THEN call her back to you and give her the pats/cuddles. This may sound cruel but it is only for a short period during this initial stage when you’re trying to re-teach her that she can’t “demand” attention by hassling you – she gets rewarded by attention when she is not hassling you.
It doesn’t mean that your girl can never ask for attention in the future – but once you’ve broken her of this habit, you will find that there will be a good balance. For example, Honey will come up to my desk sometimes now – usually when we first all move into my study, after breakfast – and stand next to my chair hoping for a pat – and I might rub her ears or stroke her head a bit (but sometimes, I don’t if I’m busy) – then I’ll turn away to my keyboard and she will go to her bed of her own accord. So you see, I don’t ignore her all the time now but she understands the rules now and she doesn’t pester me.
As for yelling at her, I am not one of those “purely positive” trainers who believes that you shouldn’t ever say “No” to your dog or raise your voice, for fear of damaging the relationship between you. I think that’s rubbish and if you have such a fragile relationship, then you don’t have much of a bond in the first place. It’s like being afraid to ever say “No” or disagree with your husband or boyfriend because then he might not love you anymore.
This doesn’t mean that I think you should go around yelling at your dog (and yes, some dogs are so sensitive that even a slightly raised voice can crush them. You have to use your common sense and know your dog: some soft, sensitive dogs quiver at even a gentle “Hey’ – others get a loud reprimand and just shrug it off. As the saying goes: You don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut). So I don’t think it’s using verbal correction occasionally is bad but I’m against yelling for practical reasons: a lot of the time, it is counterproductive (it can make the dog even more excited/unruly or in some cases, even defensive & aggressive) and there are often better ways to train and achieve what you want than by yelling. For example, in this case, yelling at your girl is still a form of “attention”so you are still rewarding her in some way, plus it sounds like you have tried using it and it isn’t very effective anyway, if she is still doing it.
So I wouldn’t do it for those reasons – but I personally don’t get hung up about “hurt feelings” in your dog and worrying about not being their best friend all the time and never introducing anything negative into their lives. I don’t try to be Honey’s “best friend” at all - I see myself as her partner and her owner, even her “master” if you like – I don’t see myself as her “mum/mom” or her “best friend” or anything like that. She is my dog and I don’t love her any less or do less for her just because I think of her as a dog and not a surrogate child – but as my dog, I expect her to know her place in our household, obey me and respect my rules.
I’m not trying to make her always love me and I’m not constantly worried that if I do something, she’ll stop loving me. I’m sure there are times when she is frustrated with me or resentful of the rules I make her follow…tough luck. And if Honey really pushes me and persists in doing something, despite me being patient and trying other ways first – well, she will get a very sharp “NO!” or in really serious cases, the dreaded “VERY BAD GIRL!” in a very LOUD voice coupled with the Scary Face! I don’t feel remotely sorry when I tell her off in those situations. I know I have been patient and consistent and given her a lot of chances – and now this is the consequence.
I know there are probably people reading this now gasping in horror and waiting to lynch me in various online forums – I know this isn’t an “acceptable” or “pc” attitude to have in today’s pet world but I have always been unapologetic about the way I see my pets. I love them a lot and spend a HUGE amount of time & effort on them but I don’t believe in trying to pander to them all the time, just to always keep things “positive” between us.
That doesn’t mean that I go around bashing and yelling at them all the time – I always try other methods first. But sometimes, a sharp verbal correction is necessary and I don’t feel guilty or awful when I have to do it. Sometimes it just comes down to a simple - ‘Don’t do that or it’ll make me angry!’ Making me angry or getting my disapproval is a good enough reason and strong enough incentive for Honey to change her behaviour – because we have a very strong bond.
You could say it’s because she “loves” me and doesn’t want to disappoint me. Yeah, maybe. A more un-sentimental interpretation would be that she is “scared” of me and my anger or disapproval (Gasp! Another of those taboos! Your dog being “fearful” of you!!) – well, I had a “healthy fear” of my own mother growing up but that didn’t make me love her any less and I have a very good relationship with her. Similarly with many of my favourite teachers who brought out the best in me. So I’m fine with that.
I don’t think anyone looking at Honey with me would say that my “tough” attitude towards her has made her cower in fear of me all the time or broken her spirit or turned her into a nervous wreck, etc, etc – if anything, she is a more confident, well-balanced dog than most and we have a very good, strong bond, which has enabled me to do a lot of different things with her and give her a very full life. In this sense, I think I’m fulfilling the role of “best friend”.
NB. I repeat – I am NOT condoning or encouraging people yelling at their dogs to solve problems! And I am NOT saying that being able to yell at your dog is a sign of a strong relationship. Please see my response to Aj’s comment below.
ps. I can tell you from personal experience that “ignoring” doesn’t work with cats – especially when they decide to sit or sleep on your keyboard & other work! In Lemon’s case, we ended up having to make up a “bed” for her in the middle of our desk to accommodate her!