Can a Dog be Over Trained?

A few weeks ago at the Rockaway beach dog park we observed a woman with her black Lab mix. While Zeke was running around with some small dogs, this lady kept her dog in one corner of the dog park. She had him sit at her side. She would shift left 6 inches, the dog would shift to follow. She would shift back 6 inches, the dog would shift back. She would tell the dog to wait & throw the ball. She would do the shifting thing again. At every moment the dog maintained eye contact. She would treat, he would wait again, and she would give the retrieve command & off he would go to get the ball. He would bring it back and wasn’t allowed to drop it until she gave him the command to. He had to leave it exactly where she asked. If the dog ever stepped out of bounds or even looked away he would get a mild verbal scolding and the ritual would start all over again. She, and her dog, would ignore any other dogs that entered “their” area. This went on for about 40 minutes.

It was amazing training. Anyone would be impressed watching it. She used, for all the time that I watched, mostly positive reinforcement. The dog was extremely ball motivated, working more for the ball reward than the treats. Doug asked, if, with a dog like Zeke, he could be trained to do that. I commented on the fact that the dog was mostly a Labrador Retriever, bred to do exactly what she was asking. He was also, unusually ball-focused, (told by the owner to another dog park member.) And, obviously, hours had been spent on his training and she constantly rewarded with treats in addition to the ball throwing. She was METICULOUS with how the dog moved, not letting him be even a few inches out of line.

Zeke is, in essence, a sled dog. He is a runner, a puller, stubborn, strong, and independent. He likes balls & treats, but he likes interaction even more. He bores easily & despite being 3 1/2 is still extremely playful-offering play bows to us, his humans, and he still play-pounces on his toys about 85% of the time. Could he be trained to do what the lab did? Probably. It would be more difficult than with the lab, it would take longer. A wise dog trainer once told me, and I have found it to be true from working with zoo animals as well, that certain animals are predisposed to be good at certain things. You should find out what that is & hone those skills, and maybe not stress so much about things they are not naturally inclined to do. Zeke is naturally a jumper, so I’ve encouraged him to jump on command, jump & spin, jump onto things & over things, off of things, through tires, etc. I can also ask him to wait, throw a toy, and then give him the signal to go get it. This last one gets boring to him very quickly though because it is the chase that excites him, not so much the retrieving part. So to keep him into it I throw the ball, he runs & catches it & brings it back. The second time I ask him to wait while I throw it, then give him the retrieve signal. The next time I allow him to chase it while it is rolling along the ground to keep his attention.

Just to show it IS possible though, within five minutes I had Zeke sitting next to me, I would move forward & he would follow & then sit again, I threw the ball, he would wait & only retrieve when I gave him the ok. And I did all of this without treats, only praise & the ball as a reward. He wasn’t perfect at it & he got bored and didn’t want to retrieve the ball after a few times, but I showed Doug what was possible with only a few minutes of training. My goal for Zeke isn’t to be a super-trained “push button” dog though. Due to his personality & characteristics he would never be exactly as trainable as that lab. I’m perfectly ok with that. I like a challenging animal! Even if I had a lab, I would love to retrieve with him for hours, but not exactly in that way. I guess, in a way, I believe training a dog like that IS over training. I’ll explain why…

First thing, you’re at a dog park. With a dog THAT trained you can let him off leash at the beach 4 blocks away & obviously not worry about him running away. A dog park is for dogs to be social. Maybe she wanted the added distraction of dogs playing to reinforce her training even more? I don’t know. But, as she was she leaving she put the ball away, her dog recognized “work” time was over and stopped as Zeke approached him. When the lab went to pounce at Zeke and play, he quickly got called away by his owner, & for the first time he was reluctant to obey! She called him again and they exited the park. That irked me a bit. The dog behaved beautifully for 40 minutes, doing everything she asked for and when he showed the natural sign of being a social dog, she denied him that. What a great reward she could have given him by allowing him to just be a dog after working so diligently. It made me a little sad, not to mention Zeke was left with no other dogs to play with.

This leads me to what happened in the snow at the playground. Zeke took off running after the little child. If Zeke had been that lab, the lab probably wouldn’t have run after the child in the first place! HAHA, but if he had, she would have just called him and he would’ve responded the same way as countless other times & turned on a dime and ran right back to sit at her feet. Call me crazy maybe, but thats a little boring. My training technique is less, COMMAND AND OBEY, and more, MUTUAL RESPECT & TRUST. So I didn’t call Zeke back to me. I had a gut feeling about the situation. I trusted Zeke that our lessons of don’t jump on the small child would enter into his head. I allowed him to make the choice & exhibit good training in a different way. Training doesn’t always have to be so clear cut. Sometimes it’s not about teaching an animal to simply respond to a cue, sometimes it is about training them to use problem solving skills & giving them choices. If I had simply called Zeke to “come” I would have been happy if he had turned right around and came back. But I was a heck of a lot happier to not say anything & see Zeke make the choice on his own, to stop just before colliding with the kid & very gently approach him, sniff him, turn to make eye contact with me & then run back to me with a quick call.


~ by manicivy on December 16, 2013.

4 Responses to “Can a Dog be Over Trained?”

  1. […] Can a Dog be Over Trained? ( […]

  2. I think she should have let him play with Zeke, that would have been a very nice reward, some relaxation. I find it a little strange indeed that she would want to do that training in a dog park full of free running enthusiastic dogs. It’s almost sadistic. But like you said, perhaps she wanted the distraction for him. I am herder and I will run and chase and I will chase a ball but retrieving it and bringing it back is not what I am good at, haha! The best game for me is playing with my people and chasing them and then turning around and having them chase me. ;).

    • That is Zeke’s favorite game as well, he prefers to be the one getting chased though!

      • Yes, I take a toy up to my people and push it against them and look at them and run away when they try to get it from me. But then when they go sit down I push my toy against their legs and run away again when they get up! I like to make them chase me :).

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