There's more to the humble park bench than meets the eye, says trainer Tony Cruse - it can even act as a training aid!
Lots of parks have seating areas, so it would be rude not to use the benches! There is nothing better on a crisp, sunny day than sitting and watching the world go by. And in this month's feature about going to the park with your dog that's just what we're doing, and incorporating some dog training and conditioning at the same time.
Dogs, and puppies in particular, need to see other people, other dogs and day-to-day objects on a regular basis; the more pleasant experiences they have around these things, the more likely they are to be the social, stable and bombproof dogs we desire. The park is the perfect place to put this type of socialisation into practice. Quality training and conditioning can be achieved from the comfort of the park bench.
Make yourself at home
No matter what the season, you can still enjoy simply sitting and taking in the sights of the park. If the bench is slightly damp, bring a towel with you to sit on. When you get back to the car, you can use it to dry your dog's feet.
Tethering is a technique where you attach the dog's lead to something fixed, leaving your hands free.
Training leads such as the Halti Training Lead are extremely useful for tethering a dog, with the various links making it easier to loop the lead around something and clip. Tethering then becomes quick and simple because you do not have to remove the lead from your dog's collar.
Tethering is optional but it does allow you to relax and train hands-free. It also stops you yanking your dog's lead if he gets too excited.
Allow your dog to take in the environment as you relax. Take a deep breath, remain relatively quiet, and behave like you are waiting for a friend. Keep one eye on your dog and survey the environment ahead of you; enjoy it.
Al Fresco training
One option is to take your dog's meal to the park with you; one nugget of his dry food rewards each piece of good behaviour. It is amazing how much a dog can improve if he eats his meals like this every day for a while. Eating from a bowl at home is such a waste. Little learning occurs and the food is often gone in minutes.
Hand feeding in the park is a massive training opportunity not to be wasted. Pop your dog's meal into a treat bag and off you go. If your dog isn't interested in his regular meal when at the park, you could mix it up with small pieces of low-fat cheese, chicken, or hot dog slices. These are high value foods because your dog should see them as more desirable than his usual meal.
Building a name reflex
"My dog doesn't know his name and he ignores me!" is a complaint I hear regularly from clients. It is often because the dog's name is only used when he is in trouble or it is overused. Either way, the family pet begins to tune out.
This exercise pairs his name with something good (tasty food). If frequently performed, you get a near reflex. Say your dog's name and you get a ‘head snap' as he looks round at you. This is extremely useful when you need to call your dog away from danger or before you request a simple command such as: ‘Rover… here' or ‘Fido… sit'. You have your dog's full attention and he is far more likely to respond than if you shout at the back of his head.
Success starts with name conditioning!
- When your dog is looking away, say his name in a happy way.
- Within five seconds, find his mouth with a small piece of food. Repeat this randomly 10 times over a period of 15 minutes.
- To test if it's working, say your dog's name in the same way and pause.
- You should get a look back from your dog. If so praise and reward with a piece of food. If you don't get a look back continue with number 1 and find his mouth with the treat. It means conditioning probably hasn't occurred just yet.
This exercise should be performed in many different environments: in the living room, in the garden, and at the park. Over time, you will notice your dog is far more responsive to his name. Soon you can substitute the food for free life rewards, such as the chance to play, sniff a tree, or go out into the garden - anything your dog enjoys.
Did you know?
When your dog eats, endorphins are produced in his brain. These ‘happy hormones' make him feel calm and relaxed, so whatever is nearby when he eats becomes connected with these positive emotions. If the pairing occurs regularly, the person, dog, or object nearby gets associated with good things rather than anxiety. This pairing is known as classical conditioning (or Pavlovian conditioning).
See other dogs... focus on owner
If you have a puppy or a dog who is either wary of other dogs or gets over-excited when seeing them, this is a great way of spending an afternoon and helping him out.
This exercise creates a good emotional response when he sees other dogs ahead; it also builds focus on you - see the other dog… look at you! When no dogs are around, it's all pretty normal because the food stops. Your dog will actively look for dogs and then look back at you because other dogs now predict snacks (classical conditioning again).
Quietly sit on the bench and tether your dog to the bench if you want. Simply survey the horizon and watch the world go by. You want to pair up the thing your dog is wary of, or excited by, with the good stuff (food). If your dog is wary of other dogs (often seen as lunging and barking), I would recommend using a high value food such as chicken. If your dog is young and most moving things are novel and exciting, you can feed him his meal this way.
Be observant. Look at your dog and look at the general environment. Imagine your dog has laser pointers in his eyes. The second the laser ‘hits' the other dog, fi nd your dog's mouth with a piece of food. Remain relatively quiet throughout. Keep feeding your dog until the other dog goes out of his sight and then stop feeding. When the excitable/ scary thing has disappeared it all gets pretty dull again. Repeat this many times.
After a while, delay the feeding when you see a dog. You should notice that your dog now sees another dog and looks at you in anticipation - bingo! Give the food at this point. The other dog is now the tip-off for good stuff. Your dog feels good because endorphins are produced, and he now focuses on you.
- Sit back, relax, and wait for a change in the environment.
- Wait until your dog sees the other dog.
- As he looks ahead at the dog, find his mouth with a yummy treat.
- After many repetitions, he will look at a passing dog…
- ...and without you saying a word he will automatically look back to you for a treat.
- Praise him and give him a treat.
If you have a puppy, you can employ this method for any change in the park environment. He can be fed his meals in this manner: a jogger goes past… feed; a child kicking a ball goes by… feed; when they disappear… stop. New things are now being paired with something pleasant and rather than being fearful of them, he will feel good and look at you.
Park bench training equipment
You will need…
- Treat bag.
- Treats (tiny fingernail-sized pieces of low-fat cheese, chicken, or thinly sliced hot dogs).
- Dog's dry food.
- Training lead.