December 18, 2018

Teaching Puppies Life Skills

Daniel Mills, BVSc, PhD, FRCVS, DECAWBM, co-author of "Life Skills for Puppies: Laying the Foundation for a Loving, Lasting Relationship" discusses with American Veterinarian how dogs can be taught to behave well, rather than obedient. 


Daniel Mills, BVSc, PhD, FRCVS, DECAWBM, co-author of "Life Skills for Puppies: Laying the Foundation for a Loving, Lasting Relationship" discusses with American Veterinarian how dogs can be taught to behave well, rather than obedient. 


Daniel Mills, BVSc, PhD, FRCVS, DECAWBM: We’ve been developing a program for puppies called ‘Life Skills.’ It goes beyond normal  socialization. A lot of socialization tends to focus on exposing animals and habituating animals to certain stimuli. The idea behind Life Skills is that in order for dogs to live successfully at home, they have to be well-behaved, rather than obedient. And they have to be largely visible most of the time. Actually, most owners they want their dogs to do certain things, but most of the time they want their dog just to be chilled. What you have to do with that, you have to think about ‘What is it that I want out of my dog and how do I set things out?’ Because if a dog attends puppy school for an hour or 2 a week, that’s less than 1% of its week. How much is the dog going to learn in a particular class? Actually, our classes are focused about how you interact with your dog at home in order to develop the skills to make it well-balanced. There’s a big difference between a well-behaved dog and an obedient dog. An obedient dog does what you want when you ask it to do. A well-behaved dog predicts what you want and does it pre-emptively. Now, a pre-requirement for that is consistency. And that’s important for the relationship, as well. Dogs work incredibly hard to fit in with humans. They’re not stupid. They know what works. ‘If I fit in with you, you look after me. I get a free lunch.’ It depends on there being that degree of consistency. So, you have certain rules, and it’s important that owners agree to those rules, as well.

The whole concept of Life Skills—and we do have a little book on that, which you can order on Amazon, it just explains these 10 Life Skills—ways of interacting with dogs in order to try and make them fit in, not just with the home, but with wider society. So, the sorts of exercises that we do to increase the dogs’ confidence, it’s okay to be startled. We all get startled every now and again. The question is, what do you do afterwards? And, if you’ve got a good relationship with your dog, your dog will know, ‘Well if I’m with you, I’m okay.’ And if you set up your home in the correct way, you can make sure the dog has a safe haven that it can go to, and the dog will know that if anything scary happens ‘I just take myself there and everything will be okay.’ So, the dog is more relaxed. If the dog is less stressed, then it’s more able to cope with things.

We developed this program, its more about education. It puts more responsible on the dog to make good choices, rather than just the traditional training. The other feature about this Life Skills is rather than teaching specific exercises focusing just on ‘you do this behavior,’ we’re teaching dogs concepts. Now, in early behavior work, people very much focused on stimulus response: this event causes this behavior. We now know that animals like dogs  can develop fairly  complex concepts. So, what we’re doing is developing those sorts of concepts. For example, frustration tolerance is basically teaching the dog ‘You can’t have everything that you want when you want it.’ And you look at a range of exercises in the normal course of your day. So, if your dog is in the trunk of your car, you get out, you don’t open your trunk until the dog is relaxed. You’re not asking the dog to do anything. You wait until the dog makes the right decision. And if you do these sorts of exercises, so before you go through the door, you wait for the dog to self-settle. You don’t tell the dog to sit. The dog eventually learns that actually ‘the way to get what I want is to just be quiet and wait, and if you’re there, you will do it for me.’ So, it develops that ability to self-control, that actually ‘I can’t have everything that I want when I want it, but I will get a good deal out of this.’ So, that’s the concept behind Life Skills.
 

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