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Don't Trick Your Dog!

One of the most difficult situations I see people getting into with their dog is when the dog is refusing to do something (usually failing to come when called, or refusing to get into a car or crate) and the owner or handler can not get the dog to do it and is trying to "trick” the dog into doing it.


This team problem does not develop overnight. Instead it develops over many days, weeks or even months, taking so long to become an official “problem” that most owners can’t even define when it actually started. But the pattern is usually something like this; I’ll take refusal to get into a crate as an example.


Week 1: Owner takes dog by the collar and puts it in crate, dog does not want to be in crate.

Week 2-4: Owner takes dog by the collar and puts it in crate, dog does not want to be in crate. Occasionally it balks or makes an attempt to dart away before being caught.

Week 5: Dog refuses to be caught by owner to be put into the crate. Owner gets a treat and lures the dog into the crate. Dog eats the treat and still does not want to be in crate.

Week 6-7: Owner gets a treat and lures the dog into the crate. Dog eats treat and does not want to be in crate.

Week 8: Dog refuses to follow the treat into crate. Owner gets a different, better treat and lures dog in.

Week 9-10: Dog follows the “good” treat into crate.

Week 11: Dog refuses to follow the “good” treat into crate. Owner produces an even better treat. Dog refuses this treat as well; will not get into crate. Owner uses treat to lure dog into bathroom, traps dog in bathroom, catches dog and drags it into crate.

Week 12: Dog refuses to follow any treat into the bathroom to be captured, and will not eat any treats and can not be lured or coaxed anywhere. Owner gets out the leash and walks towards front door, saying “Go for a walk???” in an excited tone. Dog rushes to go on the walk, owner leashes dog and leads dog into crate.

Week 13-14: The leash trick is still working; dog thinks it’s going for a walk but ends up being crated.

Week 15: Owner gets out the leash, stands by the door and says “Go for a walk?” in an excited tone. Dog refuses to go to owner or to be leashed. Owner can not think of any more ways to trick the dog into being crated; loses temper and chases dog around. Dog is becoming legitimately frightened by owner’s behavior and anger, and growls/snaps/bites owner when finally caught.


This pattern (and obviously it doesn’t always follow the exact timeline or order of events, but it does always start with the dog not wanting to do something and frequently ends with somebody getting bitten) is a terrible one to get into. Let’s break this whole thing down and see exactly where things went wrong, looking at it as a trainer might look at it.


Issue #1:  The dog doesn’t want to go into the crate. This is the fundamental problem that set off this whole chain of events. Why doesn’t the dog want to go in? I would suspect things like the following and really do some introspection: Is the dog overcrated (too many hours in the crate?) Is the dog receiving appropriate exercise for his age and breed, and appropriate human interaction? Are there specific things that happen while the dog is in the crate that he does not want to endure? If the refusal to go into the crate happen most frequently when the owner is about to leave the house, some alarm bells about potential separation anxiety might be going off. More on this later.


Issue #2:  The owner is resorting to bribery with the dog; this almost always backfires. When training, it’s usually okay to lure the first few repetitions of a behavior with food shown up front, but strive to very quickly get rid of this practice. And it’s absolutely never a good idea to ask the dog to do something, have the dog refuse and then respond by bringing out a treat offering to “help” him do it. (All this does is teach the dog not to do things unless it sees the treat upfront, or the common complaint “He won’t do it without treats!”) It’s completely fine to reward with food after, and only after, the dog does his part first (without seeing food or having any indication that there’s food available.) You can do that forever if you want; it’s just really important that the dog does his part first. Otherwise the food is just a flat-out bribe.


Issue #3: The owner is continuing to upgrade the bribery offerings. “Find a really tasty treat that your dog can not ignore” is common training advice, but many trainers including myself are starting to steer clear of the super high-value treats in most cases. The problem with very high-value treats (liver or beef, etc) is that they can be so high-value that they overshadow everything else in the dog’s environment. Occasionally you do need to upgrade to a higher-value treat. But it shouldn’t be the first thing you do.


Issue #4:  The owner is continuing to offer the dog choices in a scenerio where the dog has already proved he can not make the correct choice. If you already know he’s not going to do the thing (go into the crate) because he’s not willingly gone into the crate for the last several weeks, then continuing to ask and continuing to get refusals will only further strengthen this refusal.


Issue #5: The owner is demonstrating to the dog that he (or she) is unpredictable. Dogs like it when people are predictable. They like when the appearance of the leash always means that they get to go for a walk. Behaving unpredictably, like pretending to go for a walk but then actually the dog goes in the crate, will erode the dog’s trust.


Issue #6: The owner loses their temper. Actually, anyone who’s read through the above scenario would realize that it’s not just a simple case of losing their temper. There’s a lot of desperation in the owner’s anger; he (or she) really has “tried everything.” It’s when humans are at the end of their rope and don’t know what else to do that human aggression can come out.


How on earth would you go about untangling this situation? Here’s a couple of things to look at and try:


1)      As mentioned above, the underlying problem is that the dog doesn’t want to go into the crate. Why doesn’t it want to, and how could we encourage it to be more compliant and happier in the crate so that it’s less of a struggle? We’ll ponder that for a bit as we right away put some other things into place.

2)      The very first thing is to get this dog out of the situation where it’s choosing whether or not to go into the crate, because it’s making the wrong choice. Once the dog gets to this level of trickiness, there’s no additional “tricks” you can do. So this dog will probably have to wear a house line, or “drag line” in the mornings. House lines are lightweight leashes that the dog wears and drags around behind it (no one’s holding the end.) They’re a little awkward in that you have to be careful not to step on it and to make sure that it doesn’t get tangled in any furniture. House lines should never be left on without supervision. In the morning you’ll get up and attach the house line to the dog first thing. Then you’ll go about your whole morning routine including feeding, pottying, exercising, getting yourself ready, etc.

3)      When you’re ready to leave for work you’ll announce something to the dog (something like “I’m going to work” or “Kennel up”; more on this later) collect the dog via the house line, and put it into the crate, unclipping the house line as you close the door of the crate and setting the house line down near the crate so it can be reattached immediately. Announcing your intentions beforehand will help bring your predictability back into focus for the dog.

4)      After the dog is already in the crate with the door closed, now is the time for the treat to be produced. Produce it from somewhere that’s not your pocket. Ideally, produce it from the kitchen cabinet. Return to the crate and toss it in (make sure not to accidentally let the dog back out of the crate.) See what the difference is between this treat and the original, bribe-style treats? In this case, the dog does the thing without being shown or hinted that a treat is available. In the former case, the dog was shown the treat before anything else happened.

5)      After a few weeks of this, there should be no issue at all with the dog going into the crate. In fact, he might willingly be going in. I’d still keep the long line on for a really, really long time – just in case. I’d want to feel sure at a gut level that the dog had a new consistent habit. I wouldn’t try it without a long line to “see what the dog will do.” I would try it if I knew that the dog would do it correctly.

6)      I would continue to monitor the dogs behavior, and if there was a time when, maybe months down the line, he avoided the crate even briefly I’d go back to the long line regiment again before the issue got out of hand again.


Now, remember the part about why it was important to understand why the dog was avoiding the crate in the first place? I’d actually be addressing that all along, while I was implementing the above steps for behavior change. The dog would be getting all his meals in the crate. He might be receiving “go in/come out” reward-based training involving the crate as well as other enclosed spaces. If he slept overnight in the crate, it would be right next to my bed, not in the living room or garage. The best chewies would always be in the crate.


I’d also make sure that he wasn’t struggling with mild separation anxiety. For dogs with separation anxiety, the crate usually predicts owner departure and it’s common for them to form a very negative association with the crate because of this. So I’d be sure the dog didn’t have budding separation anxiety. I’d set up a video camera or ask a neighbor if there was a lot of barking and howling while I was gone. I’d inspect to see if he was eating or drinking while I was gone. I might put him behind a baby gate in one room while I hung out in the other room, to see if he was comfortable and could relax without being in my presence. If I saw signs of separation anxiety, I’d have to work on that – the dog will never be comfortable alone in the crate if he’s not comfortable with being alone in the first place.


I’d make sure that the dog wasn’t crated excessively. Ideally dogs get a break from the crate every four hours or so. This isn’t realistic some of the time, but I’d at least ensure that the dog received both mental and physical exercise before crating, and that if there was a day (usually a work day) when he had to be in his crate longer than recommended, I’d make sure that he was being enriched and interacted with during the hours possible to spend with him. If you’re just too busy for all this, you could look into dog walkers, dog daycare, etc.


Remember in the example above, where the dog ultimately ended up biting? That also needs a second look. It may have been that the dog was just frightened and acted impulsively and it will never happen again. It may have been that the dog made the one bite attempt, that attempt was not helpful in successfully avoiding the crate, and it will never try again. Or it may have been the first episode in what could become a pattern of the dog using aggression and biting to get what it wants. So I’d very carefully look into this and make sure that the dog was happily compliant in all other aspects of its life and that the owner knew how to read dog body language and could understand when the dog was at or near a dangerous point. I’d also be tremendously cautious for a good long time going forward with this dog. I would do a lot of training around other things that dogs typically are non-compliant with – moving off the sofa, getting into a car, standing still for grooming, etc. The dog would be getting regular, probably daily, obedience practice using reward-based training methods. Even though daily practice of “come, sit, down” etc won’t directly fix problems relating to aggression, they will do wonders to smooth out the back-and-forth communication patterns between you and your dog, and they will get the dog into a happier habit of complying with your requests. Your handling skills will also get better and your confidence will go up, which really goes a long way in giving you the ability to control the dog without resorting to desperation and trickery. 

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