Language is important!
We run into problems when we’re using the same words but meaning different things.
When I say “I don’t play fetch, I don’t think it’s the safest or best option”, I get a lot of comments like this:
“So you’re saying NEVER play with my dog?"
“But look, you threw a toy for your dog!”
“How is retrieving different from fetch?”
Because we’re using the same words to mean different things.
I grew up with retrievers. There had to be a functional difference between “retrieving” and “fetch”, because our dogs all competed in hunt tests and working certificate trials. They also played fetch a lot, with tennis balls and rackets.
To me, fetch is repetitive, back and forth throwing of a toy, often with a ball launcher. You throw, dog runs, dog catches, dog brings it back, you throw, rinse and repeat.
Retrieving has multiple points where the dog stops, performs trained behaviours and demonstrates they are still in a “thinking” brain. It often involves waiting for the toy to stop moving before releasing the dog, or not having the dog see the toy being thrown in the first place. Often the dog uses their nose to search for the toy. It involves mental work, and it generally has a lower impact on the knees, shoulders and spine.
Because of all of this, we usually have much fewer reps of retrieving than fetch.
I argue that we should move away from playing “fetch” and towards “retrieving” with our pet dogs.
And having that conversation starts with using language thoughtfully and defining our terms.
The secret for puppy success!
Do you want to know one of the biggest secrets for surviving the puppy months?
Management is where we arrange our dog’s environment so they don’t practice unwanted behaviours.
With puppies, so much of their problem behaviours are just normal for animals of their developmental stage. They put everything in their mouth, including your baseboards. They don’t know how to hold their bladder. They bite!
Setting our puppies up for success by using management gives us more opportunities to reinforce wanted behaviours, and prevents behaviours we don’t want from becoming habits.
An 8 week old puppy is a baby animal, and just like we wouldn’t leave a toddler loose and unsupervised, we shouldn’t leave a puppy. Using baby gates and playpens will prevent puppy from getting into all kinds of unsafe shenanigans.
Puppies frequently have only two modes: asleep and turbo. Keep that energy from being taken out on your furniture, shoes and decor by providing a variety of activities for your puppy. Rotate toys every day or so to keep the novelty intact, and use food enrichment as much as possible. Pick up and put away shoes, books, human toys and all other puppy-enticing objects to prevent destruction.b
Your puppy won’t know how to hold their bladder, or that they should relieve themselves outdoors. It’s much easier to just go whenever, and honestly if you were given the choice between outside or inside, which would you pick? Preventing our puppies from making mistakes is essential to house training. If you can’t be directly supervising the puppy, put them in a crate or pen to avoid accidents.
When puppy’s environments are set up to prevent mistakes, we have so many more opportunities to reinforce good behaviour. Puppies can learn that chewing on their rope toy gets them kibbles and a game, and that pottying outside earns tasty chicken. When we build strong habits with great history of reinforcement, we avoid many unfortunate training pitfalls.
Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
Modern dog trainers, we talk about wellness a lot. We talk about the Four Pillars of Behaviour Wellness, we talk about the importance of regular health checks and providing enrichment. For our dogs.
But there is a whole other half of the equation: you!
And you need those things too.
You cannot be a good learner when you are stressed, sore, tired, hungry or afraid.
You cannot be a good teacher, either.
Just like your dog deserves to feel safe and relaxed in their home, to be free from chronic tension or stress, to have opportunities to do appropriate enrichment activities and to spend time in nature, so do you! You deserve all those things.
Put your own oxygen mask on first. Ask for help when you need it.
You got this.
You probably need a chiller dog than you think.
Most dogs need more/better exercise and enrichment than they are currently getting. The vast majority of dog breeds can and will go for your daily runs with you, or enjoy hiking and camping on the weekends. Even little dogs like yorkies can be conditioned to do quite extensive exercise!
But while it can be easy to “upgrade” a dog’s exercise level, it is extremely difficult to downgrade. And the dogs we think of as “active” are designed to go way harder than most humans. Working herding dogs can sprint long distances over rough terrain and can work for hours. Our retrieving breeds can swim in freezing water and retrieve an angry and injured canada goose, then turn around and do it again and again.
Some people love the intensity and high exercise needs of an Ibizan Hound or a Vizsla, but many people purchase a dog they think will be a great fit only to be outgunned and overwhelmed.
When deciding on a breed, be honest. How active are you, really? Do you want a pet to go along with your life, or a new hobby that might reshape it? As I frequently tell people there is no right answer, just the honest one.
I also really recommend spending time with multiple dogs of the breeds you are considering, from different life stages. A teenage Great Dane is a very different dog than one that is 5 or 6 years old! Spend time talking to their owners and interacting with them to really learn what living with one would be like!
Take as much time as you need to find the perfect breed or mix for you!
So Your Dog Doesn't Like Treats
Modern, science based training uses things that the dog likes to build associations and help shape behaviour via positive consequences.
Often times, we will hear that some dogs “just aren’t motivated” or a certain dog doesn’t like treats.
All behaviour is driven by a history of reinforcement, and if a dog is alive they are food driven.
But let’s look at why a dog might be hard to motivate with food!
Did you have the bad puppy at class?
I’ve been there! Lots of people have been there! Puppy class is hard!
It can be so stressful and embarrassing to have a dog who can’t handle a class environment.
So let’s talk about it!
The first thing I want to say is that it is not uncommon for baby puppies to struggle in a class environment. Ideally, a class should be designed for you to learn how to teach your dog, not your dog to learn new skills. Puppy class is one of the hardest environments for dogs to learn in! And when we have two new learners together (you and your puppy), it’s even harder.
Some puppies struggle in a group class scenario, be it because they are frightened, overwhelmed or just plain too excited!
(and sometimes we human learners struggle in a really busy puppy class too! I know I do!)
If your puppy is not taking treats, flailing on the end of the leash, cowering under a chair or barking incessantly, they cannot be expected to learn! Remember, they are babies and they need us to step in when they are overwhelmed. If your instructor doesn’t step in to help you, ask them. “I think my puppy is really struggling right now, are there ways we can make this easier for her?”
If your concerns are simply dismissed, or if the instructor suggests using corrections or punishment with your puppy, get you things and leave.
Puppies are impressionable, and one bad experience can be impactful.
There are lots of ways we can make puppy class easier, but also some puppies thrive better with private training and more mindful socialization outside of a group class setting! There is no one size fit’s all.
Above all, do not feel discouraged if your puppy is “the bad puppy”. I have seen so many problem puppies turn into wonderful adults with patience and good training.
If someone is making you feel less than because your puppy is struggling, ignore them, find someone who will help without judgement. Your puppy is not bad. You are not bad. You have not failed.
Ask for help when you need it, and keep supporting your puppy!