I spend a lot of time at dog friendly places and dog friendly events. This gives me the opportunity to observe many human-dog interactions. Sometimes I see amazing bonding between owners and their dogs. And.. many times, I see dogs that have no idea that there is someone on the other end of the leash. This is where I begin to cringe at human responses to this frustrating scenario. Aside from the physically coercive responses like leash corrections, I can barely stand to hear people repeatedly cueing sit sit sit sit or come come come come.
First, let’s define Learned irrelevance as it relates to dogs. Maureen Ross, MA, summarized it well. LEARNED IRRELEVANCE: A dog will stop paying attention to a stimulus or request if it has no meaningful consequence. Novices (new puppy owners) will oftentimes use the word come or sit multiple times without teaching the behavior. The dog simply learns to tune-out what is not relevant or meaningful.
Even if your dog is predictable at home to correctly responding to cues, unless you have generalized the behavior to different and distractive settings, a dog is unlikely to respond to cues once you get out to that dog friendly event.
So what’s a dog parent to do to get their furry child to behave well at dog friendly places?
1. Allow your dog a few minutes to acclimate to new settings. After you get out of the car, find a bench or a place to sit down while your dog is on leash. Just allow you dog some time to see, smell and hear what’s going on. If your dog looks at you (yay! She knows someone is on the other end of the leash), say ‘yes’ to mark the behavior and reward it. A reward can be a treat or just getting up and taking a few steps toward the fun. Try calling your dog’s name. If your dog does not respond, sit back down. Once your dog responds to her name, you can reward the response by joining the fun.
2. Don’t give a cue if you don’t think your dog will respond to it. If you think that there is no chance that your dog will sit on cue, don’t say it. You can keep your dog on a short leash so she can’t jump on anyone. Save the dog-human greetings for another day… after you have practiced greetings.
3. Practice! If you want to enjoy a dog friendly event like the Suntrust Jazz Brunch, go over to Riverwalk when there are no events planned. Then you can practice some of your basics and have a much better chance for success. Make sure you are rewarding your dog for “checking in” and focusing on the human holding the leash.
4. Take a Basic Obedience Class at a park. Many of our dog friendly events take place in parks. This is an excellent opportunity to work with your dog in a somewhat distractive environment around other people and other dogs. It can be frustrating during the first and possibly second class, but well worth the effort and lots of fun from about class three to class six.
Using these tips, you can teach your dog to tune in to your voice rather than tuning out!