Thursday, October 31, 2013

Can you be more exciting than a squirrel?

Over the years, I’ve been told repeatedly that I need to be the “most exciting thing” in my dog’s life. If I can be “exciting,” my dog will ignore everything else and work happily in the face of any distraction. I overheard it again at a recent trial, as someone gave a newbie trainer advice on how to handle her highly distracted dog - “You need to be more exciting than anything else in her world.”

Exciting is probably not a word anyone would use to describe me. I am a relatively quiet kind of person. Even after a couple of cups of coffee and multiple corner pieces of MACH cake with inch-thick frosting I still wouldn’t register very high on the excitement scale. Focused, organized, optimistic, driven? Yes. Exciting? Not so much.

So after being told for the umpteenth time a few years ago that in order to get Phoenix to work with me I needed to be more exciting than a squirrel, I stopped and thought about it. No. No, I don’t.

First of all, I physically cannot be more exciting than a squirrel. Even on my best days I cannot mimic a furry little  three-pound rodent who can do acrobatics through the branches and run up and down tree trunks both forward and backward. Nor can I make those annoyed squirrel noises.

Second, if I am to prove myself more exciting than a squirrel, I will have to compete with said squirrel. I choose not to do that. The squirrel would win and I would look like an idiot. And probably get hurt.

Oh, I’ve tried. I’ve cheered and waved my arms around and made funny noises and offered toys and treats and run around until I was sweating, exhausted and couldn’t breathe. When it was all over, Phoenix just thought I was weird and maybe a little unstable and he still wanted the squirrel.

What I can do, however, is be the most important thing in my dog’s life.

There’s a difference. It’s not a whole lot easier but it is a whole lot more realistic.

As with most things, it’s taken me a while to learn this. Being the most important thing in my dog's life means he is empowered to make a choice between me and the squirrel without me being required to behave in ways that would attract odd stares at best and men with butterfly nets at worst.

I’ve seen a T-shirt with the slogan “I’m not crazy, I’m training my dog.” If you ever train in a public place, you know what I’m talking about. While even “normal” training involves a degree of odd (from a John Q. Public standpoint) behavior, I am not extroverted enough to act like an escaped inmate from the asylum every time my dog faces extreme distractions.

I would prefer my dog be able to make the choice by himself: squirrel or me. Just plain ol’ me. No bells and whistles. What you see is what you get. This is the me you get in training and in the ring.  I’m not going to lure or bribe you, because the minute the lures and bribes disappear and the erratic behavior ends, the squirrel wins. And that makes me tired.

Sounds great on paper. How to make it happen?

Obviously, by consistent training using a sensible and realistic plan of working closer and closer to things your dog may find very appealing (sight, scent and noise distractions - which one does your dog find most enticing?) By managing a long-term training plan, not just by managing the moment. By rewarding engagement and showing your dog what options ARE available if he chooses to engage (chase games, tug, goodies, etc.) and also by helping him learn that the squirrel will never actually be available. (If my dog wants to chase squirrels on his own time, that’s fine. But he doesn’t get to check out of a training session and leave me in the dust to do it. Although I will admit it has happened. Bad trainer. Needed to be more forward thinking and set up for success, not hot squirrel pursuit.)

A simple exercise is to have someone else offer your dog a cookie while you are engaging with him. The helper will never allow the dog to actually get the cookie. What happens if your dog tries to get it? Does he look back to you when the helper closes her hand over the cookie? Yay! Reward! The goal is for your dog to choose YOU over a cookie he will never be allowed to eat. Eventually, the squirrel will become the cookie he is never allowed to eat.

But beyond that, build your importance by helping your dog understand you control access to everything he wants (treats, toys, other dogs, the back yard, the recliner, etc.) AND by using genuine, sincere, honest, heartfelt praise BEFORE shoving food and toys at your dog as a reward. Let your dog know he (and his behavior) is important to you before you deliver the goodies.

Over the years, I have had students whose dogs lived in homes with doggie doors so they could go in and out as they pleased. They were free-fed from bowls that were never empty and they had a huge collection of toys at their disposal to entertain themselves with. They were allowed access to the furniture as they pleased, never waited at doors and charged out of their crates the second they were opened. Then the student wanted to know why her dog wouldn't listen to her.

Why should he? In the grand scheme of life, he probably loves his owner but she’s really not all that important. While it’s possible that she might be able to make herself more exciting than a squirrel at any given moment, when it’s all said and done, he can still let himself in and out of the house, feed himself and entertain himself while enjoying all he comforts of his owner’s home without any interaction with her. Or without any sort of rules governing his "pack."

The “be more exciting than anything else” premise works only as long as you are able to become exponentially more exciting than anything that comes across your dog's path at any and all times for as long as your dog’s career lasts.

Being the most important thing in your dog’s life is a commitment you will have to work at every single day of your journey with your dog.

Enjoy the journey.


  1. Love this post. Still have squirrel issues myself. Ok, Loki (and Juno) have them. The squirrels tend to be worse downtown than in the mountains. The mountain squirrels tend to stay away but the downtown squirrels love to tease and taunt. The dogs go absolutely insane downtown sometimes. It's embarrassing---albeit, hilarious too... he yips and hops and does everything he can to get the taunting rodent. and do the downtown squirrels EVER taunt. sigh. Makes being on wheels and jore-line really hard there, I've tried urban mushing on the bike path in downtown, and though it's possible and can be fun, squirrels can make or break my day. I've been also walking (rather than jorring or urban mushing) downtown regularly in order to try hard to desensitize him (mainly, and Juno will follow whatever he does) to squirrels. I know he can learn to ignore them because I had Denise teach him that exact lesson of not taking a cookie from her hand in 5 seconds. Loki is so bright and Denise is so fast with marking his behavior that once he learns a lesson, he never forgets it. Weeks later she tried to work with him 1:1 and he remembered to not take a cookie she offered as a reward! LOL. He's bright. But I haven't been able to transfer that kind of learning to him with squirrels. Maybe I'm not as fast or maybe this will take more time. I've done tons of other distractions (horses, cows, goats, chickens, even cats) but squirrels? I'm beginning to wonder if I'll see success with it before he mellows with age. I do agree with telling them you like their behavior. That to me made a huge impact on both my dog's. They love being told they're good and they love making me happy. I think so anyway. So I agree it's part of the overall de-squirrel training program. Loki and Juno still give paws up to all of Phoenix's attempts to rid the world of those annoying little creatures! Loki says: Hey 'Nix, you wanna go rogue on some squirrels some time? ;)

  2. I'm with you on the excitement scale. Sure I'm fun - but I'm not a cheerleading psycho.

    Someone said once I should run Layla in agility more excitedly. You've seen her run (I think - if not I'll send you some videos). She does NOT need any extra excitement! She needs me to be calm and focused to balance out her crazy behavior. Just because I'm boring to spectators doesn't mean it isn't working.

  3. Found your blog randomly - LOVE this post!

    For a time I was driving 2.5hrs to train with a well known trainer [well, well known in the apbt world]. She was always telling me I was too quiet and not exciting enough. I've always felt pretty much the same way - my dog should do it because I'm asking them, not because I am making weird noises and jumping around. I have tried to be crazy, loud, and overly fun, and typically my dogs look at me and are like "Are you okay?" It worked for that lady to be wild and crazy, and that is her prerogative, but ultimately I do feel like I will never be as awesome as the squirrel, and that through working with my dogs they will hopefully choose me over the squirrel because I have all the good things.

    Excellent post!

  4. What many newbies who are told 'you have to be more exciting than...' don't realize, is that it's not just when you're training, it's 24/7. And you're bang on, it's not so much exciting as important.

    When teaching my high-drive bird dog to retrieve a dead bird, she would say 'no thanks, I'd rather go hunt for more live ones'. I didn't think I'd ever be able to compete with live birds, most especially off leash, so I was at a loss on how to proceed without using an ear pinch or an e-collar. But my mentor, Susan Garrett (and no, I don't even do agility) showed me just how easy that was. Yes, make yourself important to your dog, and show them that access to all good things comes through you. Part way through this process, I had my dog going out and retrieving a dead bird (yuck in her world - bring on the live ones!) that was thrown right next to an open bag of sausages. She had the choice to pick up the bird or dive into the sausages. With layer upon layer of training, she had no difficulty at all choosing the bird over the sausages.

    Then just last Wednesday, she retrieved her very first warm bird, in the middle of a bird field full of live bird scent, with a snappy straight out, quick pick up, straight back, all off leash retrieve. And yep, you betcha, I released her to hunt as her reward!

  5. I shared this with our puppy raisers (and have re-read it a handful of times for myself!). I think this is an extremely important concept, and I LOVE the exercise with a person with food. I'm going to try that with Scorch, as I can think of a few people (who he thinks of as giant cookie dispensers) who can draw his attention away from me.