Dear Inquisitive Canine,
We have a 5-year-old boxer named Austin. The problem we’re having is we’re not sure what to do when he does something bad, like pulling a whole fish off the barbecue and eating the entire thing at once! How do I show him that this is bad?
Also, he tends to play with items that aren’t toys, such as sleeping bags, socks, etc. How can I distract him from those items and teach him to play with good items?
— Nicki the Boxer Mama
Well, I have to commend Austin for being so clever and resourceful — he’s designed his own scavenger hunt! He’s quite the little engineer. I understand this wasn’t your intention, though, since you consider it “bad” behavior. Let’s see what we can do to provide Austin with enjoyable activities around the house, giving him the opportunity to make “good” choices, while at the same time keeping you happy.
First, allow me to send out a gentle reminder that scavenging and “counter-surfing” are among some of the more common everyday behaviors exhibited by our endearing domestic doggies. My sidekick, Poncho, can totally vouch for that! As a matter of fact, he provided some wonderful training tips for another inquisitive canine who wrote with the same concerns. For Poncho’s pooch perspective, click here to check out this Inquisitive Canine piece.
Now, let’s create a plan you can use both indoors and out. As a certified professional dog trainer, I see the overall plan as twofold: first, managing Austin’s environment so he’s not given the chance to exhibit behaviors you don’t desire, and second, training Austin to perform the more exact behaviors you want, in the situations you want, thus teaching him the good choices.
Barbecue Dos and Don’ts
The safest and most reliable way to prevent Austin from searching for and scoring tidbits off the barbecue is to heed the following tips:
» Do arrange your dog’s environment (enclose outdoors or use a barricade if needed) to prevent access to the grill.
» Don’t leave your dog unattended outside with the grill on at any time. Paws, muzzles, mouths and tongues can get burned easily — and badly!
» Do keep your dog inside the house or tethered to those who aren’t manning the grill, if barricading outside isn’t possible.
» Don’t create an unintentional “timeout” by sequestering your dog to an area without anything to do while everyone else is having fun.
» Do spend a bit of time teaching and practicing safe grill behaviors with your dog before guests arrive (see tips below).
For training tips around grills, combine the basics with an emphasis on rewarding any and all behaviors you want. Remember, dress rehearsals are key, especially since barbecues and daily-life chaos tend to keep us preoccupied.
Basic Training: Canine Grill Safety
» Reward your pup for ignoring the barbecue: Say he walks by it and decides to stay away. Whether you’ve asked him to or not, he should be thanked. Acknowledge him with anything he finds motivating to reinforce that behavior. Use praise, petting, a game of fetch or tug, and even a yummy treat to make an impact.
» Teach “down-stay” in one location: Train Austin to perform a settle down-stay on a bed, towel or mat. Reward him for being on his “magic carpet” — all good things happen when he spends time there. If he starts to wander toward the barbecue, you can ask him to “leave it!” and as soon as he comes away from it, reward him heavily. If he continues to push his limits, you can send him indoors. After a minute or so, allow him to return to his special mat and reward him for being there. He will soon learn this distinction: “Hmm, if I stay on my blanket, I get treats and I get to hang out. If I wander toward the hot thing with food on it, I end up inside ... bummer.” He’ll soon learn the better choice.
Life of the Pawty
For additional training and management tips for parties and barbecues, click here to check out this post on teaching your dog to be the perfect host.
The Great Indoors
When it comes to teaching Austin to choose “good” items indoors, start with the most straightforward step: Pick up, clean up and put away anything and everything you don’t want him to touch. You’ll also want to close doors, drawers and cupboards. Leaving stuff lying around the house is common behavior exhibited by us humans, but setting him up for success is important for instilling good manners.
For behavioral training, reward Austin for leaving forbidden items alone, while at the same time rewarding him with high-value treats for choosing and playing with his own toys! Remember, these “good” items need to be ones he loves, not just ones you think he should like. With consistency, he’ll soon learn that making the better choice has the more advantageous payoff.
Paws and Reflect
Allow me to reiterate that dogs are scavengers, predators and omnivores who enjoy keeping busy and problem solving. Anything and everything in your dog’s environment that is both within reach and interesting will more often than not be investigated —- and many times played with, chewed or eaten (especially if he is bored).
But with keen management on your part, and some simple training, you can have an inquisitive canine who makes better choices, including leaving your dinner alone.