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Does Your Dog Play “Catch Me If You Can”

by on November 21, 2012

Does your Dog play “Catch me if you Can”

Have you ever noticed when you step toward your dog or reach for his collar he moves away? And when you’re busy and wish your dog would learn how to play solitaire you can’t get rid of him?

Dogs learn to avoid hands reaching toward their collars because the collar is too often used to drag him places he doesn’t want to go. For example, you reach for your dog’s collar to pull him outside when he doesn’t want to go or to lock him away so he doesn’t molest and torment the repairperson. The collar is your handle to drag him close to you to trim his nails, get him in the bathtub, or take him to his crate before you leave the house. Reaching for your dog’s collar tips him off that something negative is about to happen so he moves away from your hand. How often do you reach for your dog’s collar for something pleasant such as taking him to his food dish or to get a treat?

Puppy owners often inadvertently teach their puppies to back up when they reach for their collars. Puppies who are too busy to be cuddled and petted will often avoid their owner’s reach. Coco, an 18-month-old Portuguese Water Dog avoided her owner’s reach or being cuddled and petted during the day when she was busy investigating her surroundings or chewing on her toys. Coco’s dad loved cuddling with Coco and would practically tackle her to ground to pet her. As a result, Coco developed a strong aversion to people reaching toward her. Coco’s owner tried using treats to bribe her to come closer so he could take a hold of her collar. He would offer a treat and then grab for her collar. Coco became extremely adept at grabbing the treat, ducking her owner’s hand that reached for the collar, and running off to eat the treats in peace. Coco needed to learn touching her collar was positive. If your dog backs away from your hand or stands his ground instead of coming toward you when you call his name, the “Catch and Release” game can teach your dog that moving toward you is positive.

Catch & release

The “catch and release” game shifts the negative connection your dog has made with you reaching for his collar into a positive association. Play the game by saying your dog’s name and offer a treat when he looks at you. Keep the back of your hand that is holding the treat against your leg, level with your dog’s head so he doesn’t have to jump to get the treat. Don’t reach out to your dog, he must come in close to get the treat. If your dog leans toward you instead of walking in close, back up a couple of steps so that he has to move toward you to get the treat. If he still doesn’t come toward you after you backup, get a hotter treat like steak or cheese. Keep your hand on your leg even as your dog takes the treat. To prevent your dog from thinking you are going to give a treat and grab his collar, you must not move your hand toward your dog. If your hand moves toward your dog he will revert to his conditioned response of backing away to avoid your hand in his collar. When your dog does move and reach for the treat, just let him lick or nibble the treat, keeping the back of your hand on your leg. Slowly slip your other hand under his chin to the collar. Scratch his neck with your fingers under his collar and after a second or two of petting under the collar, let go of the treat, release the collar, and move away. Repeat the catch and release game often in all areas of the house.

If your dog starts to move back or shift his weight back when you slip your hand under his chin or into his collar, close your hand on the treat and immediately pull back the hand that is moving toward his chin and collar. Wait a second or two and open your hand so the treat is visible while you stand still or try backing up a couple of steps, inviting your dog to approach again. Be patient. As long as your hand doesn’t reach out to grab your dog or restrain him by the collar, he will eventually approach and accept you scratching him under the collar as he eats the treat.

If you can’t be patient, try the game once or twice and give it up until later. Importantly, do not resort to reaching for your dog’s collar. The most difficult part of this game is keeping your hand on your leg while your dog reaches for your treat. Most people don’t realize they are reaching toward the dog instead of the dog reaching toward them. You might even ask someone to observe you during the game and tell you if your hand moves off of your leg or you are reaching when your dog is shifting backwards.

Make sure your dog doesn’t grab the treat and run off before you have your fingers in the collar. If your dog is a sly, slippery fellow and you can’t get your fingers in the collar before he makes a run for it with the treat, attach his leash so he can’t escape far. He may get the treat before you get your hand in the collar but as long as you don’t reach for him, the lesson still teaches him he doesn’t have to run off and avoid your hand. Immediately offer him another treat without reaching toward him, let him approach the treat and he will become more trusting of taking your treat without trying to run off.

When you feel your dog is no longer tempted to duck your hand, and is eagerly moving toward you to get the treat, gradually raise the bar of performance and hold a treat in a closed hand while your other hand slips into your dog’s collar and pets him. Give your dog verbal praise and the treat after you remove your hand. The goal is to teach your dog that when you reach for his collar good things happen.

Always back up a couple steps, rather than move toward your dog when you call him.

Use high value treats like steak, if necessary, to get your dog to move toward you.

Don’t move toward your dog, he will move away.

Don’t feed your dog the treat; he needs to reach for the treat and take it from your hand.

In the Extreme Case of “Catch me if you Can.”

If your dog won’t come for his favorite food, attach a long leash to his collar so you can step on it and shut down any alternative routes away from you. Don’t use choke or pinch collars for this exercise. You will want to use a non-choking or pinching collar that doesn’t slip off your dog’s neck.

Pick up the long leash and hold a treat out in front of your leg. Next, SLOWLY and GRADUALLY apply tension or pressure taking up the slack in the leash. When you feel your dog pull against you just hold the tension. Don’t pull back. Hold the tension steady and evenly with the leash against your body. Many people can’t resist pulling or are not aware they are pulling. Think of yourself as a steel post imbedded in concrete or a large rooted tree. If you pretend to be a post or tree and stay rooted to your spot, I guarantee your dog will give up pulling you before you tire and can’t hold any longer. In time, which may be as much as a couple of minutes, your dog will tire of pulling you and take a step forward to release the pressure. Let the leash remain slack for a second or two and if he comes close to get the treat, let him have it. Move back and repeat.

If your dog doesn’t move forward, have patience and hold even, steady pressure on the leash. Ultimately, your dog will give in to you and move forward because he will wear out from pulling on you much faster than you will tire from just holding tension. Holding tension on a leash takes less energy and strength for the duration of the battle than pulling against the leash. Your patience will win you the battle of wills when your dog realizes moving forward for a treat is way easier and more positive than pulling back on the leash. When your dog takes a step, praise verbally, and let him get the treat for moving forward. If your dog moves forward but doesn’t reach for the treat, don’t give him the treat, just verbally praise and try again repeating the lesson. There will come a point where if you don’t give your dog the treat, and he wants the treat, he will reach for it.

When your dog is moving toward you willingly for the treat, start working with shorter leashes. Once your dog readily approaches you and allows you to slip your fingers in the collar without shifting or moving backwards you can eliminate the leash.

In Coco’s case, her aversion toward her owners reaching for her collar gradually faded with the game of “Catch and Release.” Coco’s owners also learned to respect her space and refrain from petting her until she asked them to pet her through her body language by nudging their hands.

What if you have to take a hold of your dog’s collar?

There comes a time where everyone must take a hold of their dog’s collar to move or restrain for safety or an unpleasant event, perhaps to trim his nails or reposition him when he doesn’t want to be moved from a dangerous space. If you have to take a hold of your dog’s collar, always pet your dog after you place your hand in his collar before you proceed with the unpleasant event. Petting after you place your hand in the collar preserves the positive association of your hand in his collar and separates the unpleasant event from being associated with your hand in the collar.

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