One dog watching

by | Aug 24, 2021

The other dog working

A multiple dog household is very common amongst trainers and other dog enthusiasts. It provides enrichment for the individuals that enjoy the company of their own species with play social games and group activities. Normal.

The regular question that is pushed in my direction: how to train the spectators to quietly rest and watch whilst you work, play, teach a single member of the group?

I have shared my house with a family of dogs since dogs arrived. I may take the singles away from the group for outings with me and I find these events useful to build the connection when the rest of the group are absent.

Groups outings are often split in various combinations: the oldies for a potter, the active for a workshop and the left overs because I feel guilty for not taking them with me earlier. Some dogs are in all groups! The routine of You: come along now, but stay behind later, is normal. I make the effort to avoid everyone going everywhere to build familiarity of being left behind, but not alone.

Daily individual learning with me, even grooming, is usually a one-by-one event. We have regular sessions of group learning through the day: everyone in the house, everyone out the house, every settle down, everyone this way, everyone stop, and these behaviours are being continually rewarded by the group responses and a pocket of biscuits.

With many of my dogs being home bred, learning to be an individual rather than part of the litter, or a shadow of the dam, is a particular activity I am aware needs focus. The dam is often content to let the pup do the work, after all, she has earned a rest, and handing over parenting duties is always welcome. She will be content to watch. The pup, not so, being excluded from the dam’s activities is counter intuitive. Nature has designed the learning of life skills through mimicking, engaging, watching, learning, discovering. There are activities the adults will push the youngsters away from and expect them to spectate – de-meating a bone is a clear example.

This pup is learning by studying what the other dog is doing

Time is enjoying a bone and very aware of being watched by Merrick when she was about 6 months old. 

Plan for your future

My usual routine for a morning of individual learning is to begin with the youngest, and work up the ages to the more mature dogs. Although it may not be relevant to your situation, Gordon Before Collie, my patience wears paper thin when the other way around. The youngest will find it the hardest to be excluded, but after some quality time, plenty of treats or play, they find settling easier.

Learning their watching-skills begin with me putting the older dog through some familiar behaviours that do not need my full attention and rewards are delivered equally – one for the active dog and one for the pup. The pup will be either behind a gate, or half door, or resting in the vehicle.

These locations are specific “watching” locations for the future.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

Time as a 12 week old pup, separated from his doting grand-mother. Early learning about separation earning its own rewards. 

You can employ different strategies for the watching behaviour, including toys that keep them busier for longer, but remember as they grow to find training sessions more about connection and the pleasures of learning the less they will be palmed off with a bone to chew. Exclusion from the key members of the group is extremely hard for some dogs to tolerate and very confusing.

The type of activity they are excluded from should vary. If a particular pup needs much grooming in the future, then these are active learning sessions, but the other dogs who may not find grooming a critical pleasure will settle and await their turn. This is all building the familiarity of learning to watch and wait. No collie fancies the degree of grooming it takes for a Gordon, they are content to be excluded and wait for the monthly dust off.

Out of sight, out of harm

My training sessions are designed to be short and top quality. I give training my full, and undivided, attention and concentrate on the learner, the learning and planning for the next 60 seconds. I find disturbing to hear the distress of the non-participants. They cannot understand why they are not able to join in and I have yet to find a way to explain it to them. It is not a punishment of deliberate exclusion but a moment of focus for The One individual. On occasion I have heard this described as jealousy, but I cannot agree they are jealous of The One, but simply do not understand why they are being excluded.

I prefer them to be at their rest place, where they cannot see or hear what I am doing. They will not know they are being excluded.

But.

The oldies, and those that have never really been part of the intense, individual training, often wander around, scout out for forgotten treats, and nap nearby.

Emotional stress

I know there is a whole raft of well-considered protocols for stationing the spectators to await their turn. It reminds me of the circus troupe where each elephant or seal lion, returns to their pod, whilst the others run through their tricks.

It is probably considered cool? Along with the glittery outfit and amazing tricks.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

Search the lawn for sprinkles, avoid the stress of watching and being excluded – this is almost more fun. 

When Merrick began her more formal education both Time and Flink, her pseudo parents, would come over to the barn and rest in the kitchen area. This was out of sight, but not out of hearing. Merrick would run through her exercises and then swap out to search for those missing treats around the kitchen whilst Time went through his repertoire. Much of this would be verbal cues for freestyle routines. Rehearsing with music was the norm.

When Merrick was ready for this level of verbal cues I noticed that when I gave each cue Time, would give a little shiver. He would settle himself, chin to the floor and just listen.

The shiver response may have been a conditioned sense of pleasure associated with these cues or a semi-readiness to carry out the behaviour or a frustration of wanting to respond, but not being able to.

We spend hundreds of hours building the responses and cannot expect the dog to ignore them in specific conditions. They may not be responding, with full performance, but there is certainly a mental awareness of wanting to respond.

Flink, who never really learned more than a handful of behaviours, never competed or went through the daily rehearsals would settle to sleep once the floor was clear of sprinkles. To her, another dog training was an opportunity for stray food and a nap.

Once I was aware of this, Time was always out of sight and out of hearing when Merrick was practicing.

Goes around again

Now it is Merrick’s turn to be out of sight and out of hearing when I am training with Todd, but only for the food based learning. If I take him to the garden for Sheepballs practice she has no interest, it was never her game and she has no response to those cues, or the activity.

Zip, cannot possibly watch and becomes extremely distressed at the exclusion. For her, visually acute, all activity with me, or butterflies, draws her in. She needs to be physically moving around when even though she does not play Sheepballs, when the game is On with Todd, she will race around the perimeter adding her own commentary.

She now goes out of view when I practice with Todd.

Conditioning and Instinctive response

Through regular practice we condition our dogs to perform responses to specific cues, some of these are verbal some are physical signals. As the dogs respond the spectator dogs are also being cued by the participating dog.

If I cue the dog to “go”: run fast, there are two moments the spectator can become frustrated

  1. Not being able to respond to my cue (they may be hitched up or crated)
  2. Their pal, and mate, is running fast to chase, kill grab, jump and they cannot join in.

Yep, I would get a little testy too. Many dogs have evolved to want to join group activity and are responding at the instinctive level. They do not spectate when their family goes for a kill – be in polypropaline tugs, IKEA softball, or Wimbledon bouncer.

 

Imagine being extremely skilled at a particular activity that you derive much pleasure from and have to become passive whilst watching…..

Particular when the participant repeatedly screws it up …….

 

No wonder queueing for an agility run is a nightmare for many dogs. Is it simple anticipation of their forthcoming pleasure, or the signals from the handlers they are watching, or the running-grab-bite-tug-kill, of the dog they are seeing …?

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

Learning which is their name, and learning to wait when it is not your name …..

Another dog’s prey

The active dog can also be affected by a watching dog. They live as a group and learn to respond emotionally as a group. As one dog gives the alert for possible intruders they will be supported by others in the group.

The universal responses are not global, one dog may find a particular event distressing, but this is not matched by the others. Flink is plagued by hot air balloons, but none of the others are bothered. Time was always distressed by flying insects and would leave the room, it never bothered the others.

If the spectator is a “worker” to the active dog, their running around, herding or even whining, can cause the active dog to feel threatened. No collie likes to be another collie’s sheep, but they can focus on their own sheep when engaged and ignore this insult.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

Todd “working” or using Zip as prey practice. Zip can ignore this and throw off the discomfort because she is “working” me …. I am her pseudo-sheep. 

Puppy classes with a strong eyed collie pup can be a nightmare for other pups – instinctively they will feel discomfort when they are the prey-focus of a predator.

Set up for success

If you know that one-dog-watching is going to be a pattern of your future, invest some consideration into how the spectators and participants will cope and be conditioned.

You can use different cues for each dog. This is reasonable when the number of cues may be low, for instance in sheepdog training the dogs will only learn 4 cues on the field. When they are worked as pairs, each dog has a different set of cues for left, right, stop and walk on. Working a brace can get out of hand quite quickly so it is common to train each dog to come to a stop, when they hear their partner’s cue to move. A bit of shepherd’s canniness.

If you have to remember more than a handful, it is probably safer to use the same cues or work one dog in English and the other in Welsh, or French, or Japanese ……

Name first

Some folk pre-cue with the dog’s name to indicate who is to respond. This again can work with a few cues, but over time and lots of practice the dog will find it difficult to discriminate to the simple  cue, unless they hear their “go” cue first. If “come” is always prefixed with their name: “ToddCome”, then it is a high probability he won’t respond to “come” immediately, there will be noticeable hesitation. Todd will have learned there is no reward for him on MerrickCome, or ZipCome.

“Oh, are you talking to me?”

Personally I do not want to build in moments of discrimination when I need a response without delay. It is rather similar to working with a person that finds left and right discrimination always takes a moment or two. Hard for the navigator and the rest of the traffic.

I have seen excellent selection of individuals: yes I am talking to you, with eye contact to the specific dog. You, come now to get your dinner. Dinner is a seriously important event and the dogs will be watching my face to see who I look at directly. I teach this as a group activity, as well as use and individual’s name to mean “not you” to the other dogs.

I need both the verbal, as well as visual, signals with a group that varies in age from the youngsters to the oldies getting deaf and a little blind.

 

I build association of resting places, or locations that have greater value than watching, by setting up hunt-for-sprinkles in a room or area for the food invested guys.

A resting place may not be consider quality resting if you are also frustrated by being excluded. A sofa for a football enthusiast is not a place to sleep when the game is on the TV. Be careful not to sour a good resting environment.

Merrick is content to give up her No 1 Child status for Todd, provided the garden is well laced with Best Treats and with some healthy competition from the others she needs to collects as many of these as possible.

Todd is just 12 months old and has experienced the pleasures and value of training sessions and practice. They are highlights of his day and it conversely makes the non-participation much harder.

His sessions end with high energy play that encourages a need to rest whilst others participate, but I can see it becoming harder as he gets fitter and more mature. Job done will not satisfy him long term, so he will need to go out of sight and out of sound very soon.

Some can some can’t

Those that can settle to watch and those that find it very distressing will be different personalities. Much will depend on their individual history, their genetics and age.

Just because you see a row of patiently waiting and watching dogs does not mean your dogs will be able to.

I may apply the same protocol to each of my dogs but how they respond, what they find frustrating, or they can sleep through is very individual. Like most recommendations or recipes, learning is an individualised pathway, and we need to consciously adapt to find the best outcome for each of our dogs.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

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