Life skills - what every dog needs to be a ‘good dog’

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What are life skills?

Before getting your dog you likely had a dream of what life with a dog was going to look like.

It might have included peaceful walks in the countryside, a sidekick to join you in the pub, a playmate for your children or a cuddle companion at the end of a long day. 

What your dream probably didn’t include was a dog who pulls on the lead, ignores you when you call them in the park, jumps all over visitors or steals food from countertops.

For your dog to be the dog of your dreams you need to help them out. They aren’t born knowing how to be a ‘good dog’. They only know how to be a dog.

Teaching your dog life skills is all about preparing them for the challenges of our human world and helping them to make good choices.

The 6 pillars of Life Skills

Truly there are so many more skills you can equip your dog with, however there are six key areas which when focused on will get you the best results. 

1. Relationship skills

Before we can ask anything of our dogs, we first need to work on our relationship. They need to know that we are the source of good things, that they can trust us and that we will support them through difficult situations.

Unfortunately there will be times when your dog has a bad experience. Things such as vet visits when they’re ill, having their nails trimmed or an unexpected scary experience can make withdrawals from your relationship bank account, so it's important to keep it topped up with good experiences too.

Just like a real bank account, aim for your relationship bank account to have more going in than out.

2. Boundary skills

If you've not come across the term ‘boundary’ in a dog training context before, it essentially means a physical space for your dog to remain in or on. For example a bed, doormat, crate, standing between your legs even a tree stump!

Boundary skills will play a HUGE role in your dog's success around your home. So many unwanted behaviours at home aren’t compatible with boundary games.

 Your dog can't jump on visitors if they're lying on their bed.
 Your dog can't pester you for food if they're snoozing in their crate while you eat dinner.
 Your dog won't rush out the door if they're waiting calmly on the door mat.

This isn’t all they’re good for though. Boundary games will also help in other areas such as calmness, tolerance of frustration and self-control to name a few!

3. Calmness skills

Closely linked with boundary skills, as they support each other, calmness skills look at helping your dog control their arousal levels. When we talk about arousal in dog training we’re referring to your dog's emotional state, whether it's good or bad. For example good high arousal could be excitement, bad high arousal could be anxiety or hyper vigilance.

You can never put too much value into calmness. It's a vital part of enabling your dog to keep their bucket empty. 

Not sure what a bucket has to do with dog training? Check out my blog, ‘Your dog’s bucket and how it affects training’.

Just some of the struggles which can be helped with calmness: jumping on visitors, pulling on lead, puppy biting, not being able to settle, destructive chewing and barking.

4. Lead skills

Getting used to being on a lead is something that all of our dogs have to face. How they behave when on lead will have a huge impact on your walks together, and potentially affect your relationship.

However it's more than just whether they walk nicely or not. Lead skills also cover reluctance to have their lead put on, running off as soon as the lead is unclipped, biting the lead and getting used to other walking equipment such as their collar or harness. 

5. Optimism skills

What greater gift could we give our dogs than that of optimism?

An optimistic dog doesn't get stressed when they see something new, they go through life without worry and they find it easier to cope if something bad does unfortunately happen.

Optimism can help with appropriate dog and human greetings, it can help dogs who bark and/or lunge on the lead, it can help dogs accept being handled and groomed and it enables calmer, stress free walks.

6. Proximity skills

When we talk about proximity skills we’re referring to the idea of making the area directly around you really valuable to your dog.

This is an important skill for your dog to learn if they’re going to be successful both on and off the lead when out and about in the world.

A dog who doesn’t value proximity to you won't choose to hang out around you on a walk, they won’t want to come back when you call and they won't want to walk nicely next to you when on lead. 

Wouldn't it be nice to go for a walk with your dog without having to constantly call them back because they’ve strayed too far? Or be able to walk down the road without feeling like your arm is being pulled out of its socket? Proximity skills are just what you and your dog need!

Training FOR the situation rather than IN the situation

To help your dog make good choices you first need to teach them without any distractions present. This gives your dog the best chance of success. Once your dog learns that certain choices are rewarding, they’re then more likely to make those correct choices when faced with distractions.

For example, your dog learns that going and lying on their bed when the doorbell rings is super rewarding for them. You’ve done lots of training when no visitors have been around, perhaps getting a helper to ring the bell for you so you can focus on your dog. So that when you actually have visitors arrive at your door, your dog goes straight to their bed because they’ve had so much fun doing that previously!

If you only train IN the situation you're going to be faced with trying to greet your guests whilst also trying to get your dog to go to their bed. And it’s likely that new people are going to be FAR more interesting to your dog than going to bed if that choice hasn’t been previously rewarded. And so your dog ends up getting to do pretty much whatever they want, or at least they definitely aren’t calmly waiting on their bed…

By playing training games with your dog you can help give them the skills and information to make better choices and be that ‘good dog’ you dreamt of.

Want to learn more about Life Skills?

Check out the Sussex Canines' Life Skills subscription classes!
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