On our final camping trip of the season, we did some important training. Lately, I had noticed that the dogs were crowding the trailer door when either Ernie or I came near it. When we opened the door, they didn’t try to charge out, but it made it difficult to have everyone crowded at the entrance when we were trying to get dogs in our out after a walk or toileting. This was especially hard on the older dogs. They don’t have the leg strength to plough through the dogs hovering at the door so they either fall or don’t try at all until I move the offenders back.
So on this last trip, I decided to work on getting the dogs to move back from the door when it is opened from someone on the outside.
Basically, what I did was open the door and FEED the dogs farther back from the door. This meant that I had to lean into the trailer somewhat and put my hand with the food BEHIND the dog’s heads. Also, I used the cue “back” for the four dogs who can still hear and already know that cue. “Back up” means move backwards. I was only looking for a step or too at first. As well, I occasionally threw pieces of food BEHIND the dogs so they would move away from the door.
Even just feeding the dogs farther back from the door worked. They remembered that the food doesn’t come until they are back a few steps from the door.
In the picture above, you can see McCoy staring at the food bag. He learned very quickly that staring at it DOES NOT result in a reward. The only thing that does in this particular situation is backing up.
As a dog gets older, there is generally less and less training done with that dog. Inevitably, habits change and you will see your dog doing things that you didn’t think you taught him. This was the case with McCoy, as over the time we had stopped actively training for anything because he was retired from competitive dog sports. He forgot some of the behaviours he had learned such as not charging the reward bag! Some dogs think that staring at something is how to manifest rewards. This is just a simple training error on the human’s part, likely due to reinforcing a behaviour at the wrong time.
So what if I don’t have food on me?
It doesn’t matter. If you have done enough repetitions (practice) and rewarded the dog enough during training sessions, the behaviour of staying back from the door becomes the default. It is repetition that teaches the dog what to do not the food. The food reward associates positive feelings with doing that behaviour and tells the dog that a particular behaviour was the correct one. Once the behaviour you want has become a habit, an occasional reward is all that is needed, especially if you are using the cue/behaviour regularly so the dog won’t forget it.
Occasionally, you may have to do a little retraining – like ANY dog, human, horse etc. needs to practice what they have learned. I would do this at the start of every camping/travelling season just to be on the safe side in case your dog hasn’t had to use that particular cue for a while.
Ideally too, if you have multiple dogs the best way to go about training this is to train one dog at a time. This is what I did when I first taught the dogs to “get back”. I trained the cue at home when I was needing the dogs to move backward away from me if I was carrying something or opening a door which they were crowding. It is a useful cue for a dog to know and if you train it at home first it makes it so much easier for a dog to adapt it to a new situation like a camper or tent.
I love training with food rewards because it removes the stress almost completely from a training session. Instead of getting upset at a dog for not doing what he “should” you can focus on TEACHING the dog what to do.
Lessons learned by training with food are strongly ingrained and are ones that dogs remember well.