One day last week I was strolling through the park with my trusty sidekick Hayley. Although I usually try to take in the walk as Hayley does (enjoying the present moment, unconcerned with past events or future obligations), this day my mind would not be quieted and I was lost in thought as we ambled around the bendy paths of the park. Because my focus was far from our walk, I didn’t notice the squirrels until we were about eight feet from them.
There were two of them: one sitting on the concrete path in front of me and the other was on Hayley’s side but just off the path. Although I just saw them, I’m sure Hayley had been following their activities for a number of steps. I slowed my pace just slightly and gave Hayley a quite, “shhhh – shhhhh – shhhh,” to remind her that I was still here and would prefer that she did not obey the terrier instincts screaming at her.
Hayley’s facial muscles relaxed at the sound of my voice and her ears moved back from an alert position to a relaxed one. We got to within about five feet of the little guys before they decided to bolt off toward the trees. Hayley noted their retreat but didn’t give chase.
I couldn’t help but smile as we continued on our walk, thinking back to when I first adopted Hayley and how she would charge after any woodland creature within on hundred yards. Wow, how far we have come.
What I find most impressive about Hayley’s impulse control is that I never formally worked with her on her squirrel addiction. I didn’t set out at specific times with the goal of working with her around small animals, but instead took advantage of everyday opportunities. I walked with Hayley two to five times a day, every day. And whenever we happened by an area where squirrels were active, I would take a moment or two to work with her to change her state of mind in their presence. I wouldn’t spend more than five minutes each time, but did it consistently.
Step by step, day by day, she got better and better. Squirrel chasing was not high on my training priorities since it is an easily manageable problem with the use of a leash. So I never went out of my way to work on it. When the situation presented itself, however, I always took advantage of it and used it as an opportunity to teach her instead of adding on yet another high arousal chase repetition.
In our daily life, we have so many similar opportunities to teach our dogs a little something. It doesn’t take long; it only takes a little initiative. Take a look at the time you spend with your dog and see where you’re missing easy chances to improve your dog’s behavior. The simple everyday tasks like giving your dog his food, to going out the front door for a walk are perfect places to take five extra minutes and help shape your dog’s behavior. Over time, those simple little training snippets can have a real long term effect.