From Trouble To Trustworthy—My Prison Protocols for Dogs

I think sometimes my overall goal for training confuses some people. When I tell folks I want dogs to be “reliable at liberty” I can see a look of concern cross their face. Undoubtedly the thought crossing their mind is of their out of control dog “at liberty” while resembling some zombie movie where people are running for their lives. Think O.J. Simpson in his bronco headed for the border. In reality, there’s a process leading to that point. No, we don’t just unclip the dog’s leash and hope for the best. In fact, most dogs will experience significantly less freedom before they experience more. Freedom and liberty must be earned through trust and the making of good choices. I refer to my approach as an Obedience First Approach meaning I handle obedience training before I handle behaviour issues. Among the many reasons why I do that, one of those reasons happens to be correlated with what I just mentioned “freedom and liberty must be earned through trust and making good choices”. Nothing gives the dog an opportunity to earn trust and make better choices outside of real world obedience training.

The Prison Phase

Think of your poorly behaved dog as a criminal. In some cases, this might be literal. Theft and assault are big in the dogs that I work with. So what happens when a dog commits a crime? He goes to prison! In prison, he has very little liberty. His choices are made for him, his days are very structured and very little if not any “free time” is provided. All activities and outings have strict rules about them. In Maximum Security Segregation, inmates are granted 60 minutes a day of “yard time” alone without anybody outside for company and even that can get taken away quickly if the inmate decides to act poorly. There isn’t a whole lot of room to make poor choices because many choices are made for them. Much like dogs who have struggled with bad or aggressive behaviour, some privileges and freedoms must be removed because the dog has been proven to be unreliable in certain situations.

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Melanie does an exercise called Sit On The Dog to teach Sophie that she must relax when the pack relaxes. Sophie had a bad habit of being very needy and demanding before training. Sophie can now relax while the family enjoys dinner or a television program because of this exercise.

In the “Prison Phase” of training, many liberties, freedoms and choices are made for the dog because the dog has made very poor choices in these areas in the past. The idea is to slowly expose him to these situations over and over again with the feedback of the human. Once the dog learns to “tolerate” certain things that create stress in the dog (such as a dog aggressive dog learning how to calmly exist around dogs instead of reacting to them), a little bit of liberty can be awarded to make sure the dog can still make good choices with a little bit more liberty. If the dog fails, the choices are taken away until the human deems the dog has earned them back. If the dog succeeds and makes good choices, he moves on to the next phase.

An example of the Prison Phase would be my protocols for almost every BootCamp dog that enters my home. The dog is either under strict supervision, under command or put up in his kennel—more often than not, there is no liberty right away. The dog might be tethered to my belt for the first few days so he goes where I go and I don’t have to worry about him harassing my dogs, my family, my son or eating my furniture. If I sit down, the dog sits with me. Once the dog can hold a Place Command or a Stay, he’ll be placed in one of those when not doing something else. Play and Socialization will be observed closely to make sure good choices are made. For dogs in my program for dog aggression this means on leash around my dogs and possibly a muzzle depending on the dogs commitment to do harm.

To offset the downtime, we do lots of mentally and physically stimulating activities. Many folks have a hard time getting their dogs to like their crates. Within a few days of my BootCamp, dogs love their crates because when they aren’t in them, they’re working! Getting to relax in their crates is something they look forward to.

Much of their day is on over watch. The opportunity to make poor choices at all are very limited and because I’m normally insisting on them doing something (or to tolerate not doing something), their mind is being worked.

The Half-Way House

A half-way house is the next step of an inmate back into regular society. In a halfway house, inmates are normally free to come and go between certain hours but are required to return at a certain time (a curfew) and remain there overnight.

At this stage, the dog is alternating between moments of liberty and moments of structure to make sure he can handle the challenge and has the willpower and impulse control necessary to make good choices in a more long term setting.

Back to my dog aggression example. A dog aggressive dog at this stage might be granted freedom to make choices around some stable and friendly dogs, but occasionally might be removed from the group for seclusion to take the pressure off him or he might be called back and required to stay in a location with the human. Our goal is to build up the willpower muscle, not make it fail.

At this stage of the game, the dog should be making some half decent choices around whatever creates the stress in him. For every time he makes a good choices gets him some trust points, and if he makes poor choices he’s given leniency based on his good/bad choice ratio. At any point, at the human’s discretion, the dog might go back to prison where choices are removed.

It is also important to note that the Halfway House point of training is where most owners fail. Why? Because at this stage you are required to, for brief periods of time, completely abandon control of your dog’s behaviour so he can have liberty. You also must keep razor focused on your dog’s subtle changes in body language. You must know when your dog is nearing his limits or has had all he can take and might start making bad choices. You also must be able to see those coming and interrupt them with some direction. This is actually much harder than The Prison Phase for the trainer or owner but it’s well worth it in the end to have a dog who makes good choices with as little input from you as possible.

Probation Phase

At this point, you’re basically a fully functional citizen again. You’re trusted with freedom, liberty and responsibility again but you are required to check in with your probation officer from time to time. When your dog reaches this stage, training is essentially complete. Only minor supervision in tricky situations might be required. There will be instances in this world that your dog is simply not capable of handling regardless of his level of training. This is why obedience is important as a fall back. It’s nice to be able to recognize that your dog is overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of downtown and then be able to reduce that confusion by saying “It’s ok, you just heel with me for now”. At any point if your dog is simply not at the level to handle the freedom he’s been given, you can always reduce the freedom and up the structure to teach him in that moment what you expect of him. The most common example I encounter is a dog who gets over excited in crowds or doesn’t adhere to socially polite educate around food or people. This dog is best in a stay to show him how to observe all of these things instead of forever engaging in them. It teaches him to mind his manners and exercise some impulse control. Believe me, this makes obedience take on a completely different feeling to both the human and the dog.


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My personal dog Rocky enjoys lots of freedom because I know he can handle most situations he’s put in. When I feel he can’t, he has the obedience to back it up and still be included.

When I say I want a dog “reliable at liberty”, there are many stages the dog must go through to get there. Understand that “Obedience under command” is just the starting line for training in my system. Where most dog trainers brush their hands and say “job well done” is where I get to work. A dog who holds a say is awesome. You know what’s better? A dog that understands not to jump on your guests and steal food. A dog who comes when he’s called like a bullet is awesome. You know what’s better? A dog who doesn’t bolt away and hangs with you; not needing to be recalled back. A dog who heels amazingly on leash is awesome. You know what’s better? A dog who understands to stay next to you without anything on him when you ask.

If you’re a dog owner in the Kingston Area and you’re interested in learning more about having a dog who is reliable around all the world’s distractions regardless of location… contact me to schedule your free no obligation evaluation and demo which is completed with YOUR PERSONAL DOG.

If you’re a dog trainer, dog owner or dog lover who lives outside of the Kingston area and you’re interested in learning about how to train dogs Beyond Obedience than consider hosting a Seminar! My Foundation Dogmanship and Obedience Through Feel seminar deals in depth with taking dogs from Troublesome to Trustworthy at Liberty!

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