Thursday, May 6, 2010

Conditioning Your Dog For Good Responses

"Conditioning" is a somewhat passive training method I like to use. It doesn't require a lot of time or energy or money, but can produce big results in certain areas of behavior.

It's sort of like muscle memory, but more for the brain. Change the brain, change the action, or reaction.

You can not "train" a dog to "react" a certain way. Well, actually, the experts may be able to, but not me! But what I can do is condition him, and put him in to a position of  reacting in a positive way.

Let me give you an example.

When we have a litter of puppies, we start feeding them their first solid food at 3 weeks old. From the first bowl of baby rice, and every single time there after, we whistle softly when we put their food out. It takes about 3 or 4 days for these little 3 week old pups to learn that when there here that sound, it means food. Which happens to be a very strong motivator.

When Happy first came to live at the house and in the house, he had lived the first year of his life, with the other dogs in the kennel. Not that he didn't get attention, he did. But he slept in the kennel with the other dogs and he had his own food bowl, bed, and pen. When he came to the house, he didn't know how to behave. He couldn't relax. If he fell asleep by accident, he was such a light sleeper, you couldn't sneak past him no matter how hard you tried. His instincts were sharp. It was sort of a pain. Every time one of us moved or walked around the house, he'd jump up and follow us. It took him several months  to get totally relaxed and used to hanging out inside the house. He had to learn the rules. And he also learned that he didn't have to jump up and investigate every time I went to the bathroom. That's conditioning.

Happy has always behaved very well in the house. So, we actually do give him roaming privileges at night. Never, ever been a problem.

One cold night I got up in complete darkness and headed for the fire place to turn it up. Little did I know, Happy was laying right in front of it. As I made my way I was sort of scooting my feet along because I couldn't hardly see. Next thing you know, Happy is furiously barking and growling for about 2 seconds. My foot had barely touched him, but his instinct woke him and told him to protect himself. I yelled his name. As soon as his nose bumped my leg, he recognized me and stopped immediately. He didn't even break the skin or leave a bruise. He just bumped me. He looked like he felt bad for reacting that way, but it was instinct.

To "condition" him, I started watching for him to take a nap. I waited until he was in the R.E.M. stage, where they jerk and make little noises. Then, I would get close, always in a standing position, then I'd make a noise. If it woke him, I'd barely touch him on the foot or rear end with my foot. Again, standing. Never lean over them to do this. You could easily get bitten Repeating this 3 or 4 times a day, every day for months. The whole thing takes about 1 minute. Never show a reaction, other than a friendly word or pet. This makes his experience of being woken, a pleasant one.  After a while, he will expect it to be a harmless reason, when he is awakened.

I did the same thing to get him used to other people touching him. He wasn't used to being with a lot of people at once, like at Christmas when the whole family is here. He was a little shy. I didn't want to kennel him during these times, but I didn't want to worry about him biting a child or acting out of fear. I conditioned him.

If I passed him and he was awake, I would stroke him or pet him as I went by, without ever stopping.  If he was a sleep, I'd gently bump him with my shoe, or make a little disturbing noise,  and then give him a little pet. I touched him on almost every part of his body. I groom him and cut his nails and hair. I clean his ears and eyes.  I know his ears are sensitive, he loves his neck and back rubbed. He hates getting his toe nails cut, his feet are ticklish, and he's not real fond of you getting too personal with him, but he will allow it, if necessary.  All of this is conditioning. And I believe conditioning makes all the difference.


  1. Conditioning is a very effective method. That's exactly how the dogs trained me!

  2. Thanks for reminding me Art. I guess I should have mentioned in the post that Gordon Setters tend to understand this concept of "conditioning" also! LOL Happy actually has a new technique. He's trying to teach me that when he comes up behind me and bumps me with his nose, I am suppose to get him a cookie! Sometimes I obey, sometimes I don't.

  3. Obviously, Happy has more work to do. I've found that Gordons are very persistent in their conditioning. This from a man who baked butter cookies for his settter for 12 years and handed them out whenever she went to the can and barked!

  4. WOW.....your Gordons do "conditioning" very well! Just don't give Happy any idea's about getting me to bake him home made cookies!

  5. Does this mean that Lucy now has me fully conditioned?

  6. I'm afraid so John! Those forlorn looks from Lucy that "prompts" you to take her for a walk, drive or swim.............Yep, you've been had. (lol)