Puppy Field Trips: Little Adventures That Last a Lifetime

Once again, it has been an eventful week with the Z-man. My goal since Monday was was to prepare him for a park trip which we successfully took yesterday.  To be honest I actually needed to get him out of the house in order to clear away the ex-pens, and so our housekeeper could arrive without a massive bark fest, and actually get some cleaning done. 🙂


The end result of his prep and mine these past two weeks: Zydeco is able to watch people walk by at the park without barking. This is his optimum threshold and “information-gathering” distance.

In a valiant attempt to walk my own talk, I began thinking about this park trip six days beforehand. At the start of each training session with him in the kitchen, on the back patio, in the back yard, and then in the front yard, I went through my puppy foundation skills check list, working especially hard on: calm when harness and leash are put on, auto-eye contact, name response, joyful recalls, the “Let’s go!” cue, and of course, my ever-favorite, all-important, Relax on a Mat. For each of these exercises I used his all-time highest-value food and toy rewards to super-charge his emotional responsiveness to all cues, as well as to further cement his growing default habit of remaining connected to me. Our boy is a fast study, and for a so called “drivey” breed, he certainly blew that stereotype out of the water, acing and then generalizing Relax on a Mat just about as quickly as any dog I have ever worked with.

The whole point of all the effort is that once strong enough, these foundation behaviors will hopefully carry such a ginormous whallop of a reinforcement history behind them that Zydeco will be able to remain responsive even in increasingly more challenging situations. One of the metaphors I like best for training with positive reinforcement is “charging a battery.” Each successful repetition of cue–>behavior–>click–>YAY! (treat, toy, opportunity to do something fun, etc) actually sets the neural pathways in the brain for fast-track, consequence-based, pattern-learning in the future.  This is why I truly believe that if one has to choose, it is far more beneficial  to invest 30 minutes a day in training games at home–particularly with a youngster — than 30 minutes a day struggling to walk an untrained dog around the block.


Relax on Mat: Back Patio


Relax on Mat: Front Yard


Relax on Mat: at the Park

The other image I really like–particularly for work with reactive dogs– is this: a great, big rubber band stretched from a nail sunk deep in a solid block of wood. Fluency with training cues at home, and connection to / trust with a human being is the firmly embedded nail. From there, you can stretch a dog’s ability to handle the outside world in short doses–always snapping back home as needed. For puppies in particular I like to think in terms of “Exploratory Field Trips” when taking them outside instead of walks. Without an agenda to get somewhere, puppies experience the world in a much less stressful way, because they can do it more on their own terms.

This week, in prep for his big outing to the park, Zydeco had a field trip to the front yard, and then the next day, to the car and sidewalk area in front of our house. He had a blast with it all, and although still needed a fair amount of support from me in terms of super high value treats and redirection at times, he was mostly very successful in each new setting. His ability to relax, stay relatively focused (considering how exciting it was), respond to cues, and not bark told me he was perhaps just at his edge of his excitement / arousal-threshold point, but not over the edge. Here are some pictures of his trip to the front yard.


After Relax on a Mat practice, I took the leash off for explore time. Here Zydeco investigates the dog pool. Relax first–do exciting stuff later is a great pattern to develop early in a puppy’s life.


Stair climbing is a great proprioception task. Zydeco went up and down our front steps about eight times that morning–just for the fun of it apparently.


King of the “hill.” I think he looks rather pleased with himself. There is also a nice change in view. He can see more of the street from there (but still no barking–YAY!)


I discovered he has a great love of bushwhacking! If he had been on a tight leash the entire outing, I would never have known. I now have another potentially great reinforcer in my bag of tricks to reward him with.


On the porch he took a moment to catch his breath and practice his puppy “Blue Steel” look. Death by cuteness!

Successes Front Yard: Relax on a mat: yes for 5 minutes. No-barking: yes. Offered-check-ins: 8 (which I rewarded with a YES! and lick of canned dog food, then Premacked freedom by releasing him back to “go be a dog”). Response to recall cue: 4/6. Each correct response won him a fun chase me game which he seems to love. Confident, non-fearful reactions to new setting, louder traffic noise, dogs barking across the street: yes.

Growing edges Front Yard: Higher distraction-level = increased movement / distractibility. Plenty of self-stimulation observed in the form of bush rubbing, zoomies, frenetic movement, sniffing, two missed recalls. Of course, he’s a puppy and some of this is normal for his age, so I’m not too worried yet. However, if this type of high arousal continues every time he goes out of the house, it will become a set pattern–even as he matures.

The next day we took a trip down the front steps to check out the car, garage, and sidewalk area. We live on a busy street, so traffic noise is often intense. Once again, he was highly excited, but remained responsive to me the entire time. Here are some pictures of what that outing looked like.


Relax on a Mat with front gate open. (Note: if he had not been able to do this, I would not have taken him out)


Checking out the car-crate–CLICK!

VIDEO: Look-at That on a Busy Street

Playing Look-at-That with people walking across the street and very noisy cars with music blaring. No barking, responsive to the click, able to eat, but needed to keep eyes front. Turning to me was difficult, but not impossible.
VIDEO: Mini Leash Walking Session with Premacked Sniffy Time

Distracted and sniffy much of the time, but able to offer this nice eye contact occasionally–CLICK! We did 5-6 repetitions walking back and forth in front of the house like this. I also Premacked exploring and sniffing often, because trying to compete for his attention with this much new sensory input would have been silly.

Another instance of happy eye-contact from my point of view this time. This, in my book, is the number one, top default behavior I want from a dog on a walk. I pay big for it every time.

So, all in all, a highly successful week. Always some growing edges, but our boy is definitely making progress.

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