Saturday, 19 January 2019

The Eva Diaries - Part 2

Follow the journey of Munsterlander puppy Eva and her mums as they share their experience of living with a new puppy 

The Eva Diaries  - Part 2

Eva is learning all the time, regardless of whether I'm actively teaching her. All her actions have consequences, and she's using these to help her decide which ones to try again, and which to leave out of her repertoire! But I can influence how often she can try certain behaviours – giving her lots of opportunities to practice behaviour that I want to encourage, while limiting the number of times she can practice behaviour that isn't in anyone's best interests. 

Based on my early experiences with Eva, I chose three life skills to work on during her first week: 

1. Sitting nicely beside kitchen surfaces (rather than jumping up)

One of my first discoveries was that Eva loves food – a bonus for me, as she'll be taught using reward-based methods and food is one of the easiest and most versatile rewards I can use. On the flip side, Eva doesn't yet know that humans prefer dogs not to help themselves to food off worksurfaces or tables, and it was clear she'd think nothing of it if only she was tall enough to reach the source of the delicious smells! 

So, I rewarded Eva with a small, tasty treat every time she sat while I was at the kitchen side, which she frequently did as it's the most comfortable way for her to watch me, and I ignored any attempts to jump up at the counter as I knew she couldn't reach high enough to reward herself. For now, I have a puppy who is happy to sit and wait for me to feed her exciting morsels of food from the counter, and I'm hoping this will become automatic before her legs grow too much! 

2. Teaching Eva her name (and a recall cue)

My next observation was that Eva was unresponsive to voices – speaking to her in a friendly, encouraging tone didn't get much response, and I couldn't get her attention using my voice. Since recall is one of the most important life skills Eva will learn, I decided to make teaching her a visual recall cue, and her name, my next priority. 

I like to teach my dogs to target my closed fist as their visual recall cue – it's easy for them to learn, as the scent of a treat in my closed hand naturally attracts them, and having a specific target to aim for really seems to improve their recall. It's helpful around distractions, as I can position my hand so that Eva can't see them and target at the same time, and useful if I need to end playtime or catch Eva for safety reasons, since I can delay opening my hand to give her the treat until I've got hold of her harness or line with my free hand. We're practicing her coming to me without being caught, and being caught and released, many more times than just being caught, so that Eva doesn't associate my recall cue with the end of her fun. 

Once Eva was happily coming to me every time I offered her my closed fist, I started to call her name just before showing her my fist – initially when she was already looking at me, and then when I anticipated she was just about to turn or there was a pause in her activity, and building up slowly until I could call her away from moderate distractions. She's doing well and is listening more to voices too, as she's learnt that hearing her name means we have something she'll love! 

3. Praising Eva for picking stuff up!

Most young puppies like to explore the world with their mouths, and Eva's natural desire to carry objects is strong as she's bred for retrieving, too – in fact, she loves having something in her mouth more than any of my other dogs, and often crams two toys in for good measure! I want Eva to feel confident about holding all kinds of items, and this might come in useful if we want to take part in training activities like gundog work or working trials when Eva is older. 

My approach has therefore been to ensure that Eva can't get hold of anything she shouldn't, and to praise her gently, and let her climb onto my knee to chew her prizes when she does find things – even if it's the grub she's extracted from underneath the doorstep! She has access to lots of toys of different sizes and textures, as well as safe household objects like toilet rolls with treats inside, and she's enjoyed playing with a teaspoon so that she can experience holding metal. 

My management plan doesn't always work, and she's already had a wonderful time throwing my slippers around the kitchen and wrestling with my walking boots! But that's ok – our lifelong relationship is more important than teeth marks and I don't need to try to take those objects off immediately her as they're not a threat to her safety – instead I can praise her calmly and wait for her to lose interest, or encourage her to play with a toy instead while I rescue my footwear… 

It seems inevitable that Eva is going to pick up something unsafe or unsavoury (or both) one day, so I've also begun teaching her that it's safe to give objects to me, starting with chews. Since Eva is very food-oriented and not inclined to guard her chews, I can offer a small, tasty treat right next to her nose while she's chewing, wait for her to choose to drop the chew, give her the treat and pick up the chew simultaneously, and give the chew back to her as she finishes the treat. I'm careful not to do this too often, though – it's annoying if someone keeps interrupting a favourite pastime, even if they are offering you something nice! When the chew gets so small that I need to take it away, I exchange it for a puppy kong stuffed with tiny chicken pieces – Eva thinks this is a good exchange as she willingly drops the chew, and it gives her something else tasty to bite on. 

I can't wait to teach Eva more life skills and games as she gets older, but these early lessons were enough for both of us to cope with in her first week! 

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