Written by FOTP Team
You’ve spent months training your puppy with lots of success, then all of a sudden, as if overnight, they decide they don’t need to listen to your commands anymore. Sound familiar?
I’m Kirsty, and like many others experienced over the course of the pandemic, I found myself with a puppy that would no longer listen to me. Having first brought Ruby home in December 2019, I was lucky to be able to take her to puppy training classes before the pandemic hit. This meant I was able to socialise her with other dogs, as well as teach her basic commands like sit, stay and recall under the guidance of an expert dog trainer.
After graduating from puppy training, I thought I had the model puppy. Ruby is a cross between two working breed dogs, which means she loves learning new tricks and enjoys being rewarded. However, just a month into the first lockdown, Ruby started to unlearn her previously good behaviour. Whilst she would still sit on command, and enjoy a ‘high five’, her recall had all but disappeared.
With dog trainers unable to work and after a particularly disastrous walk where Ruby had decided everything was more interesting than me, I found myself typing into Google “why is my dog suddenly not listening to me?”. Anyone who has typed this into Google will know there are heaps of information, hacks and ideas to try, and if you’ve been in this situation, you’ll also know they aren’t all good or practical ones!
Not knowing how long the pandemic would last and when dog trainers would be able to work again, I decided I wanted to understand what was causing Ruby to rebel and how I could equip myself with the tools to handle her stubbornness.
Later that night, I was on Facebook and an advert popped up, a month-long online challenge which promised to help me understand my dog better, change her behaviour and make me the ‘centre of her universe’. The challenge involved spending just twenty minutes a day training and was based on learning through games. It had lots of positive reviews and also provided access to an online community of thousands of people who were all on-hand for any questions, so I thought I’d give it a go.
The course was developed by a vet and a leading dog trainer, and focused on the psychology of the dog.
Something that I found particularly interesting was learning about how much Ruby could cope with. For example, maybe she had a particularly stimulating day; she’d chased a squirrel in the park, played with some dogs and refused to recall, it’s not surprising there’s an increased likelihood that she will misbehave until that energy is out of her system. Depending on the dog, some can actually take days to calm down, and any stimulating activity will delay this.
From monitoring Ruby I was able to understand how much she could cope with. As a springer spaniel cross, she is naturally very energetic. But if she’d been spooked in the park, it would take around 24 hours for her to calm down. Knowing this, we changed our behaviours. If she’s had an over stimulating day, or had been spooked then we would skip a walk and play games together at home instead.
The first day of the challenge was learning about rewards. Rather than feeding her lots of treats and then giving Ruby her breakfast, I was taught to play games using her food. Whether this is doing tricks, playing catch, or putting it in a snuffle mat, the idea was to make her work for her food. After all, this is how dogs live in the wild and the food they catch is a reward.
Over the next few weeks, Ruby and I played games of catch with her food and we used snuffle mats and toys. Each day I changed the way she received her breakfast, and I could tell she was enjoying it more and more. Rather than breakfast being over in minutes, we were spreading it out over an hour. She was bouncier, her tail wagging, and after breakfast would sleep the rest of the day whilst I worked.
Her recall in the house was perfect, and I could even use her food to stop her displaying certain behaviours such as barking. Her catch had improved too, and she’d learned new tricks like spin and the conga!
Once we’d nailed the training inside the house, I moved her outdoors. I started early in the morning when there were less distractions, just the wind blowing. We’d done a circuit of the park and Ruby’s recall was impeccable.
The next day I tried again but a little later in the day when there were more dogs around. Ruby had never exhibited negative behaviour towards other dogs but she was difficult to call away from them. As we were in a safe place, with lots of dogs playing together, I decided to let her run off her leash. To my surprise, rather than bounding over to the dogs like she would have in the past, she took a few steps forward and laid down, waiting for the dogs to approach her. I was so proud and shocked by how far we had come in such a short time.
By the time I’d finished the month-long challenge, we had a better relationship, and a better understanding of one another. Of course, this style of training will never be better than working with a professional dog trainer, but it was exactly what I needed at that time, meant I could learn at my own pace, and at a time that suited me.