What is an Exceptional Companion Dog?
You know it when you see it. The dog that stands out from the crowd because he is so well-mannered and happy: calm, confident, curious, and connected with the owner. Adapts easily to different environments. A dog that has predictable emotions and behavior under normal circumstances. Easy to be with. A dog who exhibits impeccable manners. A go-anywhere dog!
Dogs like that don’t just happen. It takes time, maturity, experience, and training. It also takes an owner who appreciates the value of having an Exceptional Companion Dog and is willing to put in the time and effort to reach that goal.
Can any dog become an Exceptional Companion Dog? Many can, not all, but many. They can but will they? It depends on the dog’s temperament, breeding, training, and of course, the owner.
I believe a good training path looks like this:
- Puppy Kindergarten
- Advanced Puppy
- Trick Dog
- Advanced CGC
- Urban CGC
- Environmental Conditioning
- Helper Dog
The important thing to notice is that it takes time. A dog needs to learn and mature along the way. Both you and the dog are learning. With training, the more you do, the more you can do.
Throughout all these classes, you learn how to be an observant trainer. You learn how to communicate clearly and to read your dog’s body language. Our dogs tell us so much, we just need to listen with our eyes.
Connecting the dots:
Puppy Kindergarten and Advanced Puppy classes work on the basics like attention span and focus, eye contact, loose leash walking, working around other dogs, and being handled. They also build a solid foundation in your relationship with your dog. Remember, what they learn early they learn best.
Trick Dog is a good intermediate step after the puppy classes because it contributes to the dog’s learning while allowing the dog to make mistakes without corrections. We are teaching tricks! How can a mistake be made? It also teaches the dog to use its paws, chin, nose, and mouth. These skills transfer to higher learning and task training.
The CGC program teaches the dog and handler the skills needed to work successfully in different environments. The basic class teaches the foundation skills, and the higher-level classes have you apply those skills in new and novel environments. Exceptional Companion Dogs go everywhere with you, so they need to learn how to adapt to new locations, sounds, smells and surfaces (metal, grates, mesh, and moving surfaces.) Developing the dog’s emotional intelligence reduces their stress levels when faced with new situations.
Environmental Conditioning opportunities are like post-graduate work. The dogs are introduced to places and situations that wouldn't normally see. A previous student made a comment about visiting the horse stables. Since she doesn’t have horses, nor is she around horses, it didn’t seem to be relevant to her personal situation. However, while in Arizona she and her dog were walking around town and here comes a police officer on a horse. Since her dog already had an earlier introduction to horses, her dog was able to manage her response without overreacting.
The Helper Dog class applies the basics to tasks and assistance behaviors. Several of my students now use their dogs as Service Dogs. They are exceptionally trained and have successfully matured into their roles as Service Dogs. Each student trained their dog to respond to their personal needs for alerting, sensing, and comforting them during specific episodes in their lives. Such responses are so specific to an individual’s needs that they couldn’t be covered in a group class.
Students were able to use the skills they learned along the way to train these specific behaviors, such as:
- Using previously trained hand touches, nose touches, and paw touches and apply them to specific tasks.
- Knowing how to mark a desired behavior (yes, good, nice, click!) then reward.
- When to use a higher value vs. a lower value treat.
- Knowing how the proper placement of reward contributes to accelerated learning.
Several students regularly sent me videos of their training sessions for additional coaching.
Transferrable skills are shaped and developed as you followed the training path. Examples include:
- Retrieves: picking up items and delivering to hand or lap.
- Pulling off socks, sleeves, and coats
- Pulling open doors and drawers
- Pushing closed doors or drawers
- Bracing for balance and standing up
- Blocking for personal space
- Stairs, up and down, without pulling
- Tunnel under legs
- Follow behind (narrow passageways)
- Lead in front (narrow passageways)
- Send to a target (going thru security checkpoints alone)
- Stays and recalls
- Chin rests/pressure
- Accept handling/touching all over their body.
None of these behaviors can be done without basic obedience and lots of training and experience. By starting with a young dog or puppy you will be able to shape the dog's thoughts and behaviors into an Exceptional Companion Dog.
Let’s start with an explanation of what socialization means. Think of the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. A puppy needs to be gently exposed to lots of new and novel things that can be processed by the five senses. New things to see, new sounds to hear, different smells and tastes, and different things to feel like different surfaces to walk on.
Dogs live with humans and to live confidently and peacefully they need to be well socialized. Dr. Ian Dunbar says that a puppy should meet 100 new people in 100 days.
There is a critical period in the development of a puppy when the puppy needs to get as many of these socialization experiences as possible. This critical period is typically between 6 and 12 weeks. Scientists vary on defining the age range, some say it even goes to 16 weeks.
Studies have shown that during this critical period, these early experiences are hard-wired into the brain. Memories are created that last a lifetime. If the puppy isn’t adequately socialized during this period, it often results in a dog who is fearful, aggressive, growls at people, or worse.
Breeders are very aware of this critical period and do a good job ensuring their puppies get as many socialization experiences as possible before going to their new homes. New owners are usually coached as to what they need to do with the puppy regarding continued socialization. Ignoring this coaching can have a long-term adverse effect on a dog’s life and will not contribute to a peaceful home life.
New puppies must be managed very carefully. On the one hand, we need to provide a wide range of experiences for the puppy, and on the other hand, we must be mindful of their safety, vaccinations, and overall well-being. So much of this socialization can be done in the safety of your home and yard. It’s important to talk to your vet and keep current on the puppy’s vaccinations.
So go have fun with your new little one and introduce them to their new world! As soon as they are eligible, enroll them in a puppy kindergarten class.
Older dogs need training opportunities, too.
It is a common practice for dog owners to spend a lot of time training and competing with their younger dogs; particularly since many dog sports require a level of physicality. Once a dog has reached their pinnacle of training and titles, a younger dog is added to the household and the owner’s time and effort shifts to the newer dog.
The older dog who was once the center of attention, is now left home and has fewer opportunities for training or experiences.
An interesting twist to this applies to Service Dogs. A Service Dog in training receives considerable time and attention from their owner and trainers. Once the dog is fully trained, it isn’t uncommon for the dog’s world to shrink down to only being with their owner. All that earlier attention is gone.
It is easy for these dogs to feel isolated.
At times, I hear from owners who are concerned that their dog is demonstrating behavior issues such as growling and barking. It’s typically the older dogs or Service Dogs, both of whom
are no longer living the life they once had. They are missing out on continuing training and experiences.
Remember when your dog was a puppy? Remember how important it was to socialize the pup to their new world. The pup’s socialization focused on the five senses: what they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. Those exposures helped the pup adapt easily to new and novel environments and experiences. It gave them the confidence they needed to face the world.
I submit to you that older dogs still need these opportunities. To maintain a well-balanced view of the world and be able to adapt to new and novel environments and experiences, older dogs should continue to receive training and be exposed to the world around them.
There are plenty of opportunities for older dogs in terms of training and experiences. Older dogs do very well in scent work, tracking, Trick Dog, Canine Good Citizen, and even competition Rally and Obedience. I’m sure you can think of more ideas. Experiences don’t need to be elaborate, just take the dog to the bank with you!
The key is to do something with the dog.
Look around to see what classes are available. It’s ok to repeat a class – the dog won’t care!
If you haven’t taken the dog out recently, do not overwhelm them. Do something easy where the dog can maintain a comfortable distance and mentally process the environment. Use good judgment and do things that are suitable and safe for your dog.
Leave room in your life for your older dogs. They still need to spend time with you.