Downeast Dog News

Prevention, prevention! Prevention!

Don't be an Enabler
By | Oct 01, 2020
Photo by: Archie and Ruby practice excellent heel position with attention at PupStart using various training aids to ensure success.

“…and how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: prevention!”


Yes, I have just defiled a line from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Perhaps I have will be planting an ear worm in your brain of the song “Tradition” (you are welcome!). Some day I will write a parody of it; all related to “prevention” as it pertains to dog training.


Ah, “prevention!” What a simple word; so easily understood “on paper,” yet so misunderstood and under-appreciated in practice.


What exactly do I mean by "prevention," anyway?


Prevention: setting up the dog’s environment so that she makes “right” choices. “Wrong choices” are thereby highly unlikely, if not impossible. “Right” choices can be rewarded, over and over. As a result, good habits are born!


Prevention of undesirable behaviors

A young puppy in a recent puppy class developed an affinity for rock eating. Unfortunately for his owner, our outdoor classes are held in an area that’s covered with pea gravel: a veritable feast for this young lad. The reasons are obvious as to why we don’t want our dog consuming rocks, so it was imperative that we prevent him from doing so. Telling him “no!” or “leave it!” is a tempting strategy, but not an effective one. Even if he knew a cue well, he would be continually nagged.


A leash, platform, mats, tarps and training were our strategies. We set up his area so that most of the rocks were covered and inaccessible. Still, if left to his own devices, he would seek out the tiny areas that were exposed, so his owner had to be vigilant and keep him engaged with other activities. The leash controlled his space and therefore what he could access. The skills he worked on were incompatible with eating rocks. Allowing “DuJour” access to things he should not eat would have been enabling him, just as handing your toddler a loaded paint brush and a wall would be enabling him to explore his early interior design talents. If we have a toddler with a paint brush, we’d make sure he only has access to what we want him to paint and we would supervise him. Remember, puppies are like toddlers with built-in knives.


Don’t be an Enabler of Bad Habits. If you are, don’t blame your dog for making the wrong choices.


Note: we suspect that DuJour will grow out of this potentially dangerous habit, but we recommended a vet check and an all-out-prevention program to make sure he cannot practice this habit at home or anywhere else. We don’t want to count on him growing out of it; he could very well grow into it instead.


Perhaps your dog doesn’t eat rocks, but maybe there are other behaviors you’d like to change. It’s never too late to work on it!


Restrict Access

One of the most obvious solutions to many problem behaviors is to restrict our dog’s access to the things that cause him to make “wrong” choices. Mind you, they aren’t “wrong” to our dogs - they are what come naturally to him. If we continue to allow access, we are, you got it: Enablers.


Does your dog beg at the dinner table? Keep him confined (in another space, tethered, crated, gated) away from it.

Does your dog jump on visitors when they arrive? Keep him confined (as above) away from them until he settles.

Does your dog jump on people he meets? Keep him on leash, out of range of other people.

Does your puppy chase and nip at your kids when they run around? Confine him.



Just imagine how few dog bites there would be if the dogs could not access their victims.


YES, certainly, we want to get to the point where we don’t always have to be in prevention mode, and the secret to that is…


Management through Training. Training through Prevention


The accompanying photo shows how much thought we put into trying to have error-free learning at PupStart, my day school for puppies. My goal was to simultaneously teach two very young puppies (Archie and Ruby) to want to be at heel position, offer eye contact with me, in close proximity to each other, and with puppies cavorting nearby. In addition, I wanted to condition them that a treat being offered to their neighbor was an invitation to look at me. Wow, each of those things is a lot to ask of any puppy! I didn’t want to nag them or tell them what not to do. I wanted to be able to reward them generously for getting it right.


So I set things up very carefully. Bingo! Success!


These puppies will need a lot more practice with this setup before I will be able to fade the training aids, but once they learn the game, they will make rapid progress.


How can you set up a training session with your dog so that the only answer is “yes!”?


“The Puppa, the Puppa! Prevention!”