Reactivity to Stuff
One of the most important lessons that puppy can learn is that sometimes weird stuff happens and it is nothing to worry about. We want him to feel comfortable and safe, even when exciting or potentially scary stuff happens.
Not only do we want him to feel good, we want him to behave nicely as well. And this means, most importantly, not over-reacting to new stuff by pulling toward it, barking at it, or otherwise making a fuss.
This exercise works to help puppy learn both lessons. First, he is safe, only good things will happen. Second, good behavior will be rewarded.
So, right now we are going to practice, with puppy, accepting the fact that sometimes stuff just happens. It’s weird, it’s exciting, it’s sometimes even kinda scary – but! his job is just to hang out and observe.
You’ll see two approaches to this exercise in the video.
BACKPACK: In the first part of the video, the trainer is gently holding the puppy between her legs. The puppy is sitting. The trainer’s hands are gently across the puppy’s chest. If the puppy is relaxed, the trainer delivers tasty treats right to his mouth. If the puppy tries to escape, the trainer *very gently* blocks his forward movement. This can be a good approach if puppy cannot hold a down stay at all. It is a good idea to practice this skill first before using it to introduce a potentially scary stimulus.
DOWN-STAY: In the second part of the video, the trainer has the puppy in a relaxed down by her side. If the puppy got up, she would lure him back down.
In both positions, she is simply feeding puppy whenever he notices the new stimulus. The puppy in the video was not having too much trouble with the vacuum, so we are able to have the vacuum fairly close, turned on, and moving. Every puppy is different and you may need to make things easier at first. It’s better to start with success and gradually make things more difficult than to be too ambitious and have failure.
In your practice, whenever puppy notices the vacuum (sound, sight, movement) feed puppy treats. When the stimulus is over (vacuum is turned off/stops moving/goes away) stop feeding treats.
Your should reward puppy often enough that he stays relaxed while the exciting, distracting, and potentially scary vacuum cleaner is brought out/turned on/moved/etc.
Here are activities you can do with the vacuum cleaner:
Turn it on, outside the room (for just a moment at first. Repeat until can be on for 3-5 seconds)
Wheel it in so that puppy can see it
Roll it back and forth (first, pointed away from the puppy. Then gradually point in different directions)
Turn it on, at a distance, while it is in the room
Turn it on, at a distance, and roll it back and forth (away from the puppy)
Puppy should not be so focused on you or the food that they are not noticing the vacuum cleaner. However, they should not be so focused on the vacuum cleaner that they are agitated or not eating.
Of course you can try this with other potentially scary or exciting things.
This is an interesting exercise because puppies can have such different responses to something like a vacuum cleaner (or a bicyclist, or a leaf blower, etc.) They can want to run away/escape or they can become over-aroused and want to chase/bark at/lunge at the thing (or, a conflicted combination of both). However, even though these seem to be opposite reactions, the same training plan is used to fix it!
If puppy is obviously scared, constantly lunging forward, or not eating, the exercise is too difficult for him. Check in here and we’ll help you come up with steps to get you there.
PRO TIP: It can be tempting to take a wait-and-see approach to introducing new stuff to your puppy. We might be curious to see how they will react if left to their own devices. *But* you only get one chance to make a good first impression, and first impressions are very powerful for puppies. Take it upon yourself to make sure that puppy has a good experience and a good reaction to new stuff. Something new? Give a treat. Something strange? Give a treat. Something loud? Give a treat. This is a good rule to follow until pup is one year old (and longer if your pup has a nervous disposition). It’s important that you don’t wait for pup to show a reaction to respond. We do not want to accidentally teach puppy “lunge and bark=get a treat” or “cringe and hide=get a treat”. The lesson should be “weird thing happens=get a treat”. The worst that can happen is you might end up with a dog who looks to you when weird or loud things happen.
Of course, we can’t be perfect 100% of the time, so if something ever does overwhelm your puppy to the point that he is no longer eating, don’t get stuck in the moment. To break him out of it, first move him away to an easier distance, and then be ready to help him recover with a stiff drink (and by stiff drink I mean tasty treats).