So, you’ve set that you just area unit reaching to either use the dog you
already own or acquire a dog to be your business partner. It’s not as
simple as simply pop your dog into the automobile and schlepping him
conditioned to work the same way that your body needs to be conditioned to work out. There are also some caveats to using your dog in your business plan, including a high rate of burnout. After all, the work can be physically taxing and emotionally stressful.
Preparing your dog for work
There are three variables to conditioning that you should take into
consideration when working with any dog. To easily understand and
recall these variables, I use the term “PET.” Before you begin working your dog into your client regimen, think about the elements that go into making a well-rounded teaching dog: his physical state (P), his emotional state (E), and his level of training (T).
Whenever you think about asking a dog to work with you for a private client or in a group class, run down the PET checklist before deciding how to proceed. If your dog can not handle one of the variables of conditioning, it may be best to leave him at home for this lesson and opt to use another strategy, whether it’s a dog who can handle the rigors of the client, a video of a dog/handler team performing the cue to be taught, or just explaining the exercise to the client.
Your frst jump into a ftness regime probably didn’t start with leisurely running a marathon. If you wanted to run a marathon, you probably began by mapping out a training plan that started with walking, then jogging, then running increasingly long distances building up to a 26.2-mile run. And while your dog likely doesn’t need to be “marathon ft” to participate in training activities, you do need to ask yourself honestly: “Can this dog’s body physically handle the demands of this lesson?” So you need a training plan.
Physical conditioning in this context has two parts. First, is your dog physically ft enough to handle the rigors of this work? And second, does your dog have stamina in training? If your dog has not had a fair amount of practice responding to various cues for prolonged stretches in distracting situations, he can burn out rather quickly in a work situation. Be sure that your dog has the focus to work for a solid 45 minutes to an hour before taking him to a client or lesson.
Remember that the physical aspect of a teaching dog’s work can vary from day to day or even from hour to hour. Is it too hot for your dog to work today? Then you’ll either need to adjust your location and hold your lesson in an air-conditioned space, or rethink bringing your dog with you to that reactive dog lesson. Has your dog woken up a bit stiff today? Then think twice before using him in an agility demo. Is your dog overweight? Then you may want to think about a conditioning plan before you ask him to work day in and day out.
Just as you may opt to stay home sick from work if you aren’t feeling well, if your dog is ill or infrm, it’s not fair to place him into the position of a working dog.
Not every dog has the emotional buoyancy to work as a teaching dog, and this is why the selection and socialization of your partner
dog is so important. Even after you fnd a canine partner who loves
his job and generally does it with gusto, it is important to be aware
of his emotions when he’s on the clock.
For example, my Australian Cattle Dog mix, Uluru, excels at keeping her cool in the face of reactive dogs. She seems unfazed by this work, and never feels the need to “shout” back at clients’ dogs. However, if my 2:00 client’s reactive dog slipped his leash and rushed up to her, that might stress her out a bit. Knowing that, if my 3:00 and 4:00 clients are also reactive dogs, I would keep in mind that Uluru might be a little less tolerant of any canine outbursts that might take place in those sessions. Depending on how stressed she seemed by the earlier incident, I might fnd a different neutral dog to bring with me, or cancel the session entirely.
My Border Collie, Porterhouse, can be placed into the hands of any of my students to run an agility course. This makes him invaluable for teaching people to feel what it is like to handle a dog who is a big, ﬂoaty jumper or has a peppy rear cross. But Porter is a sensitive soul, so if there is a thunderstorm brewing, I know that he is less likely to perform well in this capacity, so I adjust my plans accordingly.
My point is this: Even after you have laid the groundwork perfectly for your teaching dog to be successful, it is critical that you remain aware of his emotional state, and all of the various factors that might affect it. Always ask yourself, “Is this dog emotionally able to enjoy the work I ask him to do in this moment?”
Training is perhaps the most important aspect of preparing your dog for work. Without training, even the best dog will not go as far you need your teaching dog to go. Keep in mind that when you choose to make your dog a teaching dog, you make the claim that your dog knows the material so well that your clients should be modeling off of him. Of course, basic obedience is important. But there are several cues that should be paid attention to very closely when using a teaching dog.
When training any dog, there are four variables that are the foundation of all of your work. These should be used as a guide for how to proof your dog so that he is behaviorally reliable in a variety of situations. All four of these variables should be proofed before starting to work with your dog in a teaching dog capacity.
Distance is the amount of space put between yourself and the dog in a working capacity. The easiest application of distance is the “stay” cue. When leaving your dog in a “stay,” you will frst practice simply standing still in front of your dog until released. Then you will take one step back, then several steps back, fnally resulting in moving into a different room while your dog holds the stay position.
Distraction is the amount and type of stimuli around your dog while the cued behavior is being performed. When working with distractions, build up your dog’s tolerance slowly, knowing that what teach
When working to proof distraction, rank your distractions on a scale of 1 to 10, with Level 1 distractions being the least distracting stimuli to the dog, and Level 10 being the most distracting. Work through the list, only moving on to the next distraction when your dog is profcient at the one before. By the time you’ve worked through highlevel distractions (Level 7 to 10), you should be able to consider your dog proofed! As a general rule, once a dog has had a behavior proofed in about ten different locations under high-level distractions, youcan consider the behavior to be reliable.
Duration is the amount of time that you ask your dog to perform the behavior cued. Did you ask your dog for focus and eye contact? If so, for how long? While at frst you may reward the dog for simply meeting your gaze, you will likely want to increase the duration that your dog holds the eye contact. You’ll do this by frst marking and rewarding for a ﬂeeting glance into your eyes, then extending the time that your dog maintained eye contact for a second or two, then extending for 10 seconds, and so on.
Location is the area where you are practicing with your dog. Dogs do not generalize lessons to different locations well. Your dog may be able to perform a cue at home, but can he perform it in an unfamiliar environment? I frequently tell my clients that until your dog can reliably perform a cue in seven to ten different locations, the cue is not totally proofed. Of course, some dogs are more sensitive to location than others. But it’s common for dogs to be so location-sensitive that there can even be several different sub-locations within the same location! For example, your house may be the main location, but the kitchen may be one sub-location, while the foyer is another.
The bedroom is still another sub-location, and the back yard is a
whole new world! As an example, I always discuss with my students
the importance of location when training a reliable recall. This is a
behavior where proofng locations is especially important. Of course
your dog will come to you reliably in your house, and maybe even
in your yard. But will your dog recall quickly to you while off leash
at the beach? On a hiking trail in the woods? Or how about if he has
bolted out of your front door after a cat? Not unless you’ve practiced
with the location variable.
These four variables should be practiced individually at frst, until they are reliable. Once each of these variables has been mastered on its own, you can begin combining the variables. However, adding too many variables before the dog is ready will cause the cue to break down.
For example, if you are beginning to teach a stay cue to a green dog, don’t begin by practicing two variables together, for instance, distance and location. Instead, practice building distance and then practice in several unique locations. Once your dog’s stay has been proofed through both variables, then practice building your dog’s distance at the stay while in unique or exciting locations!