One of the first things I tell clients is that both management and training are essential to living happily with a dog. There is no magic wand to wave, and so unless I want Beetle, pictured at left, to go into my house with that mud, I need to MANAGE the situation.
Beetle has not been trained to wipe his feet, or hose himself off, or that when his feet are muddy, he must wait for me to clean them before going into the house. If I neglect to shut the mudroom door, and he trots his muddy feet into the house, then I need to go to that special place in my house for banging my head against the wall (which is the only appropriate response when a dog does not do as I had hoped).
It is not fair to yell at him as he trots through the house (I would argue it’s never fair to yell, but that comes later). He doesn’t know better. I used that phrase- “he knows better!” for a long time, but I have no idea why I thought a dog would know anything other than what I taught him. And if I never taught him to stop and wait at the door, then why would he?
I know many people who train their dogs to wait until their feet are wiped off before going inside. I could do that as well, but I would have to go through a training process (no wand waving) to teach that. I would need to train that long before mud season if I expected it to be a solid behavior in mud season. I would need to hold myself accountable if the dog did not wait; if he doesn’t wait, then I haven’t done a good enough job of training it.
I would also need to make sure I reinforced the dog (with a click and a treat) for waiting at the door even if he wasn’t muddy. I can’t let him walk into the house without waiting on dry, sunny days and then be upset if he doesn’t stop when his feet are muddy. I think that’s where some people get frustrated thinking that the dog “knows better”. THEY know that they always stop the dog to dry off his feet when it’s muddy so they think the dog should figure it out as well.
Dogs pick up on many cues- but they aren’t always the cues we think they are. “Muddy feet” is not a cue easily distinguished to a dog who has no problem with muddy feet and barely notices.
Today I worked with Eloise on a similar behavior: waiting until I asked her to get into the car. She is very good about jumping into the car promptly as soon as I open the door. It’s quite handy most of the time…but not when she looks like this. So I realized it is my responsibility to teach her to wait until I tell her to jump in. We practiced that many times today. I approached the car and then opened the door a tiny bit and then gave her a click and a treat while she waited outside the car. I shut the door and did it again.
Here I was managing her ability to get in the car. Before, the door opening was a cue to jump in- a strong cue. I didn’t want her to make a mistake and jump in- that would have been practicing behavior I didn’t want. I want to practice behavior I do want- that’s what makes it stronger. If I only opened the door a crack, she couldn’t jump in- she was bound to be successful and she was learning in baby steps. The next time I opened the door a tiny bit further- click and treat for waiting.
I continued to increase the amount I opened the door each time, but by now, she realized she was getting treats for just standing outside the door, so the urge to jump in was gone. Finally I could open the door all the way and she just waited for her treat outside. Then I said “hup”, which basically means jump up on something to my dogs, and she jumped in the car for which she got another click and treat. I want both behaviors to be equally as strong.
After practicing this several times, I noticed that Eloise was hesitating as we approached the car, rather than dancing excitedly to get in. That was information to me that she was starting to realize that every time we approached the car, she would be expected to wait. Eventually, approaching the car will become the cue to wait outside the door…as long as I am consistent in remembering to ask her every time! At that point, I will no longer need to go through the stages of opening the door many times, but I will still reinforce her for waiting- and jumping in.