One proactive solution to many typical dog problems is to set up a “Doggy Success Station.” This is a particular place that is set aside for the dog to relax in, and that uses some sort of physical restraint (at least initially).
While at her Success Station, the dog is directed to do something which is incompatible with something else you don’t want the dog to do. Success Stations combine dog trainers’ two favorite methods of dealing with unwanted behavior: management and rewarding an alternative. If your dog is stealing things off the kitchen counters while you cook, climbing all over you while you try to relax, interfering with the diaper change, knocking over the kids while they’re playing, jumping on the dinner guests, tripping the waiter at the outdoor café – then you will benefit from setting up a Success Station.
Management is physically controlling the dog and her environment so that the dog is restricted from doing the wrong things. We use management techniques all the time – keeping the dog on-leash or in a fenced-in yard, putting your shoes in the closet and the trash can under the sink. Management tools can include tethers, pens or gates, or crates. A tether can be a simple leash or a plastic-coated cable (for dogs who chew) attached to a heavy piece of furniture or block of wood shut behind a closed door. Put a comfortable mat, towel or dog bed in that place, and you have the physical set-up in place. (Note: dogs should never be tethered or tied-up when left alone – this is a recipe for creating frustration-induced aggression.) This area should be near where the action is happening – just outside the kitchen door while food is being cooked, near the dinner table during a meal, or at the end of the couch while guests are gathered in the living room. This is not “putting the dog away” but just restricting where she can go – like placing a baby in a high chair or play pen.
Reward an Alternative Behavior
The other key part of a Success Station is to give the dog an appropriate and enjoyable behavior to do, one that is incompatible with the behavior you’re trying to eliminate and is just as rewarding (if not more so). My favorites are food-stuffed chewies like Kong toys, bones, etc. The dog chews on the toy or bone, instead of jumping, climbing, stealing, etc. Yes, this is a “doggy pacifier” but it’s more – it gives the dog something to do and rewards her for lying calmly at her Station while life goes on around her. It also forms a strong positive association between the Success Station and the goodies the dog gets there.
You can set-up separate Stations in the kitchen, living room, bedroom, etc.or have a mobile set up that can be moved from room to room – anywhere that the dog needs to learn calm, patient, stay-out-of-the-way manners.
When introducing your dog to Success Stations, be sure to do it gradually, and in the least-challenging contexts. If you’re teaching your dog to relax during dinner preparation or around guests, practice at first when no one is cooking or no guests are there. Get the dog to “buy in” to the comfort of hanging out on that bed or mat with the chewie first, then introduce the distractions of food on the counter or chatting friends.
Once your dog is used to settling down on the mat or bed you can eliminate the tether, open the pen or leave the crate open. After a while you can probably eliminate the big chew toy (although this is a great way to feed meals – we still often feed our dog his meals in his crate). Eventually you can add a cue to the beginning of the set-up, like “go to your place” or “go chill out,” so that as soon as you want your dog to go settle you can direct her to where she should go, and she’ll know what to do.
Success Stations can be the key to living a comfortable life with your dog, without her being in the way or feeling abandoned.
Stacy Braslau-Schneck trains dogs for individual clients and teaches dog training classes in the greater San Jose area through her company, Stacy’s Wag’N’Train. She uses the latest in education and scientific research in her training and instruction, and her website, wagntrain.com, is a comprehensive source of training tips and Bay Area dog event information.