Structuring the relationship with your pet

STRUCTURING THE RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR PET – everything must be on your terms and rewards are earned!

Why: Structure and predictability can be a very important for animals, especially for those that suffer from anxiety. By providing boundaries to your pet during all interactions, and by rewarding calm and quiet behavior, you will establish a new way of relating to your pet that rewards desirable behavior. Positive reinforcement provides structure and predictability for the pet. To put it another way, this concept goes along the lines of ‘gaining respect’ from your pet, although this is a crude description, because a dog’s mind does not think like this! Some trainers refer to it as ‘being the alpha dog in the pack’, but this outdated theory tends to promote a ‘punishment’ mentality and has been superseded by far superior animal psychology. Just think of it as structuring a healthy relationship with your pet, just as a wise teacher does when instructing a less experienced pupil, and you will get it!

An added benefit is that you will also be constantly practicing having your pet respond to your cues or commands, initially when there are relatively few distractions. This increases the ability of your pet to focus on you when there are distractions present, and to receive support or guidance when emotions of fear, anger, over-excitement or aggression are in play. This can be one of the most valuable tools you can have as a pet owner.


Shoving a slobbery ball into my lap in an attempt to make me play fetch is definitely

unwanted behaviour and should not be rewarded!


Drummer is so irresistible, Ray can barely stop himself from

looking at Drum and smiling at his naughty behaviour. He should know better!

When: This program should be integrated into everyday life – during all interactions with your pet. It should not be practiced merely as a ‘special’ daily training session, but adopted as a fundamental, long-term change in the way you interact with your pet. Every time you interact with your pet, you should first cue him to complete an action, so he learns that nothing in life is free. For example: if he wants to go outside, make him sit before you open the door, then invite him to exit as his reward (since this is what he wanted in the first place). He wanted out: so he had to sit to get what he wanted. You are not his door slave!
Who: All family members should abide by these guidelines for pet interaction. All dogs in the home should participate. Everybody. Every time. Forever.

How: It is important that all trainers involved in pet interactions remain calm, in control, and patient. These exercises are not about forcing a dog to respond: it is about making a simple request and, if accomplished within a reasonable timeframe, compliance is rewarded with something the pet most wants (a pat, a treat, a game of tug, access to the yard, access into the house). Establish what the pet most wants – at that moment in time – and reward him with it upon compliance. Cues/commands should be given in a firm, quiet, calm voice—once! Do not shout or repeat commands. If there are two pets in the home, say the pet’s name first, then give the command, pause, and allow the pet an appropriate amount of time to respond. If he doesn’t, walk away or ignore him – remove/refrain from any possible form of reinforcement – then try again, after an appropriate amount of time.

Use cues that your pet knows: some trainers simply use the sit command, others may have a larger repertoire of commands to select from, such as sit, down/drop, shake, watch/look, etc. Non-compliance is not rewarded, but nor is it punished – essentially, the dog is ignored for non-compliance. However, you can try again in a few minutes, giving either the same cue or a different one. Once the dog ‘learns’ the new system, they are become very compliant and eager for positive reinforcement, to the point they anticipate great things.


Positive reinforcement should be calm and gentle to keep the dog focused on the task, not revved up!

(Note: The tug toy tucked into my belt is ready for the ‘end of lesson’ reward

a full-on game of tug which is this puppy’s favourite thing!

Giving attention to your pet: Attention should never be given on demand, but only upon invitation when the pet is calm, quiet and behaving in a way that you want to reinforce her, or on compliance to a command, as described above. Attention-seeking behaviors, such as pawing, barking, meowing, jumping up, etc., should be ignored—no attention should be given. This includes eye contact, touching, or speaking to the pet, including reprimands. If the pet seeks attention by standing or sitting quietly, reward him. The goal is not to ignore the pet, but rather to ignore the attention-seeking behaviors. Try a signaled ‘non-attention’ period: for a set amount of time ignore the pet’s antics completely, and gradually increase the amount of time you don’t respond to your pet’s demands for attention.

Introducing word association: To help the difficult attention-seeking pet understand what is happening, introduce a signal, such as placing a towel or other object on your lap when attention is unwelcome/not ‘scheduled’. Think of it as a ‘my space’ period, so say this phrase firmly and calmly as you place the object onto your lap, then ignore the pet, no matter how hard she tries to win you over. When the ‘my space’ period has ended, remove the object. For the rest of the time, you must still ignore all attention-seeking behaviours and make your pet earn everything s/he wants. As your pet learns what the signal/cue means, they will start to lay down when they see the towel come out. Be sure to make this ‘no-attention’ period shorter and shorter as the pet learns to leave you alone and lie quietly on their mat.

Structured interactive time: All pets need regular social interaction, mental stimulation, affection, play, exercise, and grooming. Do this as often as you can – but always on your terms. Be sure to incorporate these interactive sessions into your regular routine on a predictable basis. If the anxious pet knows that play time, a walk, or affection are forthcoming, they will learn to be more relaxed and calm at other times. This produces a beautifully behaved, independent, and confident pet.

What: As a general rule, your pet should be given a command to which he must respond before engaging in an interactions, including social interactions such as affection or a game. This also includes giving any attention, food, access to new areas, etc. While many people are taught to give a command to their dog before giving a treat or their meal, most people give away any attention for free. This devalues the training reward, and is counter-productive to establishing a structured relationship with your pet.

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I have no problems with giving Drummer a cuddle like this, but he is never allowed to jump up without being invited! The three steps are clearly illustrated here: Drummer must sit first and wait to be cued, upon which he lifts himself up gently and puts his paws into my hands, and then the cuddle is full on! He is always asked to get back down again, to indicate to him the ‘jump-up cuddle’ is over. This is a perfect example of setting consistent boundaries – giving your dog certain parameters in which to behave, and using positive reinforcement all the way!

For more information, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Happy training – and remember: LOVE YOUR DOG!!

Trina, Ray and Drummer.

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