This topic came up because of our observations at recent Obedience Trials. Unfortunately, we saw quite a few people “lose” their dogs in the ring. For example, the dogs visited the judge, sniffed the floor, or headed to the ring gate. After the teams left the ring, the handlers were understandably upset and they blamed their dog. It wasn’t the dogs’ fault! These same handlers allowed their dogs to sniff the floor, pull on the leash, and dash off to visit their friends before and after their turn in the ring. How was the dog supposed to know that the rules are different inside the magic baby gates?!
The real problem was that the dogs and handlers were completely disconnected from each other right from the start. What does it mean when we say that dogs are connected to their handler? We teach our dogs to stay with us both physically and mentally. This is one of the very first lessons that we teach our puppies.
Being “On a With Me” means two things to our dogs:
- When the handler moves, the dog must move with her.
- The dog can never leave the handler. It’s really that simple—it’s just not easy to be that consistent, at least in the beginning.
The first rule could also be called “Shut Up and Move.” This rule puts the responsibility on the dog to stay connected to the handler. Often, handlers get a false sense of security by doing all of the dog’s work for him. If the handler is constantly reminding the dog to pay attention and stay connected, for example, by talking to the dog, using the leash, luring with food or otherwise entertaining the dog, when the handler stops doing those things, as we must in the ring, the dog doesn’t know what to do. He’s not being a bad dog, he just never had to do the work himself. We must teach the dog how to take responsibility for staying connected to the handler. Fortunately, this is a simple skill that can be taught to the dog. Then it is up to the handler to constantly maintain it.
Here are a few simple steps to teach your dog a good “WITH ME”:
- When teaching this for the first time, we begin with a food lure. We do this with our puppies first thing. With the dog on a loose leash, put a cookie near the dog’s nose and lure him toward you as you step backward one or two steps. Mark and reward the dog for moving toward you. Give the cookie with your hand against your body to ensure that the dog comes all the way in. The dog should always be facing you as you back away from him.
- Once the dog is moving with you each time, remove the food lure. When you back away from the dog, mark and reward him for following your motion. If he fails to move with you, allow the leash to pull him toward you. Then back up again. When he follows your motion, mark and reward.
- As soon as the dog is reliably moving with you each time, begin to ask the dog to move multiple times before rewarding. Each time you move, praise but don’t always reward. For example, move once and praise the dog for moving with you. Then move again and mark and reward. Gradually ask for more repetitions before rewarding. Be sure to stop after each backward movement. It should be a series of stop and go movements; don’t just keep moving. Once you are not rewarding every time, be sure to mark and reward when the dog moves quickly and immediately in response to your motion.
From there, we progress to adding distractions and eventually teaching the dog to do an “Off-Leash With Me.”
Here are the important points for teaching your “WITH ME”:
- Although you can teach a verbal command for With Me, you do not need to use it every time you move. Once your dog is required to be with you, it is not your job to keep reminding him of his job. Do not use your voice to get the dog to stay with you! (Remember, Shut Up and Move!)
- Use a leash! You cannot teach your dog to stay with you if you have no way of ensuring that he will move with you when you move. Three feet of leash is all you need. The leash should be loose at all times unless the dog fails to move with you. If your leash is constantly tight, that is a sure sign that your dog is NOT with you!
- Get off the food lure! We only use the food lure briefly to show the dog what we want. Once the dog has the idea, the food must become a reward rather than a lure. Keep it in your pocket until the dog has done something worth rewarding. Never reach for a food lure because you don’t have your dog connected to you! Otherwise, you never will without the food.
- Notice that we have not said anything about where the dog is looking when doing a With Me. We do not require that the dog stare at us the whole time; however, you will likely find that your dog does look at you with great attention. If he is committed to staying with you, his focus is on you!
- When teaching your With Me, stay at each step for at least a week to ensure that the dog has ample time to understand before moving to the next step.
The second rule, that the dog can never leave his handler, effectively removes the environment as a source of reinforcement for your dog. If your dog can no longer leave you to go visit other dogs or people or wander off after a toy or speck of food on the floor, your dog will be much less distracted by those things. You have made those things irrelevant to your dog. If your dog does leave you, don’t just call the dog back to you. Go and get him and bring him back. If your dog leaves you and you call him and he comes back, he thinks it is OK to leave as long as he comes back when you call.
Unfortunately, that won’t help you in the ring if he wanders off during an exercise. We aren’t saying that your dog can never visit with other people, but that needs to be with your permission and not while you and your dog are training. During a training session it should be just you and your dog working together and ignoring the rest of the world. If you have a very friendly dog, do your controlled meet and greets before your training session begins.
The next question is when does my dog have to be “With Me?” The answer is during your entire training session. Those two rules apply the whole time. In fact, “With Me” becomes your dog’s default behavior. For example, if you are doing a recall and you release your dog after he sits front without giving him another command, he is automatically expected to stay with you. A release word, such as OK, releases your dog from the exercise he is performing but it does not release your dog to the environment. You want your dog to remain on stand-by for the next command rather than allow him to leave you to pursue his own interests.
Keeping your dog “With You” throughout an entire training session might seem like a daunting task; however, it is just a matter of cultivating good habits. The main requirement is for the handler to stay attentive to her dog at all times. If your attention wanders, your dog will get into trouble before you realize it and then you will end up correcting the dog for your mistake. The end result is what we observed in the ring. Handlers were disappointed in their dogs because they didn’t stay connected, but they had never taught their dogs to take responsibility for being connected!
The good news is that having a dog that stays connected prevents problems. Most problems are really a lack of attention and commitment to staying with the handler. In our travels teaching workshops around the country, we have met many, many dogs that had good training to do the various Obedience exercises, but were lacking a good “With Me.” This prevented them from being able to perform in shows even though they knew how to do the exercises. Heeling is a prime example. Most of the problems that people argue about with their dog in heeling really have nothing to do with how well the dog can heel, but rather result from a lack of connection between the dog and handler. If our dog understands that it is his responsibility to stay connected to us and that he does not have the option to leave, it is much easier to focus on teaching and perfecting his Obedience skills.
Motivation is a key component to training. However, it is almost impossible to motivate a dog that has no interest in you and doesn’t want to stay with you. Did you ever notice that although your dog will play with you at home, he won’t do it when you are in training class or at a dog show? Why? Because he is distracted and not connected to you. You can’t compete with the environment! If you remove the environment as an option, your dog will find you much more fun and interesting. You cannot simply entertain your dog and try to be more fun than the environment because there will always be times when your dog might choose something else over you. Remove the choice and you are the source of all things fun!