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Back to School and Learn to Earn

By Kim Everson, DVM

It’s that time of year again. The nights are getting cooler and coming earlier. Crickets are singing their late summer song. The Packer pre-season has begun. Back-to-school advertisements paper the kitchen countertop. Summer vacation is officially winding down and school is right around the corner again.

Obedience training my now six-month-old puppy has been on ongoing project, of course, but with another academic year looming, it seems appropriate to discuss his curriculum.

I am often asked by frustrated or anxious clients how to correct certain behaviors in their dogs. The basis of all canine training, I believe, is deference training. Also known variably as the “learn to earn” or “no free lunch” program, deference training is essentially doggie etiquette training. But like most animal training techniques, training ourselves is often the first step! Before launching any training method, thorough research into the philosophy and techniques is necessary.

Dogs sitting patiently and attending to their trainer
for a command

Timing, consistency, and attentiveness are at the heart of successful pet training programs. Deference training, done correctly, teaches even a young puppy that good things come to those who sit and wait patiently. Nothing the puppy needs or desires comes without a price. The price is not exorbitant for him, however. It is something all dogs learn early on–sitting.* The dog’s meals, playtime, potty breaks, even walking through a doorway should be given only when the dog is sitting calmly and attending to you.

My puppy Guppy is expected to top 80 lbs when full-grown. It was bad enough having him barge the door when he weighed 30 lbs, but as he grew it was becoming incredibly obnoxious if not downright painful. With just a day of training, Guppy learned that the only way he was going to enter the house was if he sat nicely and watched me. Now Guppy sits at the door without any prompting on my part. Guppy also must sit nicely before he receives his meals or before he gets petted.

Deference training even helped us work through some minor food aggression problems with our late Springer Spaniel GrrrD. She was so protective over her food bowl (even empty) she made us nervous for our little kids. We overcame this irritability by having her sit nicely under our supervision while our child poured her dog food into the dish. Our child was the one who gave the “GrrrD, OK” release command to eat as well. Soon she came to realize that, though small and newer to the family, our child controlled a very dear resource–her kibble–and was to be respected (at least in this matter).

A dog learns respect for his owner and acts in accordance with her wishes because doing so benefits the dog. It’s much like a star employee doing a great job not from altruism but because he knows doing so guarantees his paycheck. Pinning a dog to the ground like some kind of mutant “alpha dog” does not create an obedient dog. It creates confusion (dogs are smart enough to know you are not a dog) and potentially fear aggression.

I like many of the pet behavior resources listed on Dr. Sophia Yin‘s website, and here is a link to her discussion on Learn to Earn. Some dogs graduate from basic deference training to advanced programs to learn how to become search-and-rescue dogs, guide dogs, etc. But even if your dog just learns to mind his manners in certain situations (e.g., not jumping on visitors, not lunging at other dogs on walks, not barking incessantly at the cat) it is worth the little bit of effort deference training takes.

Teaching a dog to sit

* Teaching a dog to sit can be as simple as saying the word “sit” (once, not a thousand meaningless times) while holding a delectable treat over his head and then moving it backwards over his neck. Most dogs will be so “into” the treat they will naturally sit down in order to keep it in view. Eventually the dog will associate the word “sit” and your hand motion with the action of sitting, doing so on command even without a real treat. 

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